A New Year's resolution you can keep: A clean inbox

The Inbox Zero method will help you unbury from your email inbox overload

Each new year, people promise themselves that they will get better organized, read more, lose weight, be kinder, and tackle a host of other resolutions they may or may not keep. Here's one resolution you can accomplish: It's called Inbox Zero, and it will make you more productive with email -- that tool you use all the time.

Inbox Zero encourages people to keep their inboxes clean and clutter-free by making sure it is emptied daily. It's a concept developed and promoted by Merlin Mann, an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. I don't know about you, but I have about 10,000 messages in my inbox and could probably benefit from a new method or system that would help me deal with all of that mail flow.

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The Inbox Zero idea is to use folders, filters, and focus to get your mail better organized. A big key to this is to delete junk mail like mad rather than letting it sit in your inbox. Even beyond the stuff our spam filter catches, we all get tons of junk mail each day. The only way to keep it from crowding out your real email is to adamantly delete the junk, do your best to unsubscribe to those emails you no longer read, and divert those borderline emails you might or might not read into a folder using filters.

The first part of the Inbox Zero process begins with what Mann calls a DMZ: You create a new folder called DMZ and move everything you currently have in your inbox into that folder. That way, you start with a zeroed-out inbox.

Your next step is to create folders to which you can filter content. Some people go with a folder structure that relates to timeframes of when they need to get to a matter (today, tomorrow, next week, and so on), and others categorize emails by subject (newsletters, friends, business); some people use a combination of approaches. It's a process, not a one-time thing; it will take a little while to cultivate the right folder set for your needs.

Mann recommends a few additional activities to assist with email overload syndrome, including altering your email check-in schedule so that you aren't constantly interrupted by new email and "living in your inbox."

Most of all, Mann encourages lots of deletion. He says to ask yourself the question: What does this message mean to me and why do I care? If you cannot answer that question, delete the email. If a message does mean something to you, determine what action is required on your part (read and file, read and respond, and so on) -- then do it. He encourages people to focus on the action that needs to be taken to respond to messages quickly (perhaps using templates for those short, repetitive responses) so that emails don't linger and draw you back later.

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