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Zero Out Your Email Inbox...Really!

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Welcome to the third and final post in the series on how to Simplify Your Online Life. If you're just joining us and missed the past two posts, you can catch up by going to my article archive.

I'd love to know how this whole series has worked out for you and what other life simplification topics you'd like to know about, so please leave a comment at the end of the article. I read each and every one. With that, here's the third post, on how to zero out your inbox.

"Karen Leland, would you like a bigger... whatever?" Well.... I guess if I were a man, and if this was not the 74th e-mail offering me a larger package, a pill to make me hotter or $5 million in cash from the country of Zambia -- I might. But at this point, I'm going to pass.

Let's face it, the sheer amount of e-mail -- much of it ridiculously insipid and annoying -- that most of us get everyday could make a person a little bit crazy. The problem is that finding the good stuff amidst the garbage can be a little like looking for a needle in a haystack.

In fact, one recent survey from Microsoft Windows Live found that 60 percent of Internet users say their online lives sometimes feel more disorganized than their physical lives.

Still, don't despair -- yes Virginia, it really is possible to get your e-mail inbox to zero. Perhaps not every day, but at least a few times a week, and here's how. Borrow a tip from the wide world of time management and zero out your inbox with the four D system.

One note: As far as I can tell, the four D model (and variations) have been around for about 20 years. I did not event it, but along with others I've written about them in books and articles and taught workshops using the model for decades. These are just my take on the timeless topic.

Do: Some items that pop up in your in-box require or inspire you take immediate action. If the message you see can be handled easily and quickly (say within five minutes) do it now. Once done, delete the item or move it to the appropriate folder for storage. If the time can't be completed easily move it to a folder for items to be done, or flag it for completion at some point during the day. At the end of the day, all the flagged items, that are unfinished should be moved to the 'to be done' folder.

Delete: If an email sits in your in-box waiting to be worked on for days, weeks, or even months, you may be putting off the completion of the item for several reasons including: It is too big to handle as is and needs to be broken down into bite size chunks; the item is not clearly defined enough for you to take action on; it is something you don't really, want, need or intend to do. If this last reason fits, there is no shame in hitting the delete button and saying so-long to that message muddling up your inbox.

Delegate: Just because you received the email message, does not mean you have to be the one to execute it. A great strategy for clearing out your in-box is to transfer it to someone else's. Considerations, of course, need to be given to the other person's availability, ability and willingness, but the option of passing on a piece of the work to someone else is a real one. Ask yourself if you really need to be the one to handle an item?

Defer: Many items in your in-box are good ideas you would like to follow up on - just not now. Instead of letting the someday item sit in your active in-box file, create a 'to do', 'pending' or 'someday' folder where you can keep tabs on messages you may want to take action on at some point in the future.

By reflecting on your priorities, goals and commitments you can more easily determine which bits and pieces don't require action today, but can be put off until tomorrow. The key is to immediately clear the item out of your in-box and move it to another file where you can easily retrieve it when you are ready to work on it.

Ask yourself, Is it essential or important that this be done today or can it wait? Would there be any serious negative consequences if I delayed doing this item?

Exercise: Five Minutes To A Cleaner Inbox

Open your email in-box and then set your watch, alarm clock, computer or iphone on a five-minute timer. Now, starting from the top (the latest email) go through and see how many items you can get completed and moved out of your mailbox using the four D's - Do, Delete, Delegate or Defer.

Karen Leland is author of the recently released books Email In An Instant: 60 Ways To Get Your Message Across With Style and Impact, Watercooler Wisdom: How Smart People Prosper In the Face of Conflict, Pressure and Change and Time Management In An Instant:60 Ways to Make the Most of Your Day. She is the co-creator of a new line of Productivity Pads from Time Tamer™ and the co-founder of Sterling Consulting Group. For questions, comments or to book Karen to speak at your next event, please e-mail