Vision: Inbox Zero

Do you have a love/hate relationship with your inbox? I would be surprised if someone answered “no.” It keeps me in contact with people who help me get the job done because I can fire off a quick email to ask a question or send a synopsis of a recent meeting with action items for recipients. As the number of unread messages starts to creep up, whether in an annoying bubble on my phone or in the bottom pane of my desktop view, it can wreak havoc on my ability to focus on anything other than email. See what I mean? Love/Hate relationship.

I live and die by my calendar, and my inbox is my to do list. In fact, I have a meeting on my calendar to work out three days a week; when that sucker pops up on my phone on a day I didn’t work out, the guilt trip sets in, and you better believe I am out of bed the next morning to really show my calendar who’s boss. It’s sad, really.

To-Do List

Let’s get to the real topic: our inbox. I mentioned earlier, I use mine as a to-do list. That means the anxiety starts to rise if the scroll bar rears its ugly head on my desktop view. It’s true. It is time to stop and reprioritize my day to take care of whatever will move a few emails out of the inbox. Or, it means buy a bigger second monitor so I have more room before the scroll bar happens. True story; I did that. Shocking, that didn’t really make me more efficient. However, there are a few tricks below that have helped.

Note: I have spoken to other people who set reminders on their calendar several times a day to check email. Those times are set aside to respond to email so the rest of the day can be spent focusing on other tasks. This does not work well for me, but could be a way to manage your to-do list.

Inbox Categorization

My inbox is categorized by date. I do this to keep track of how long it has been since the inquiry made its way to me. If it is more than a week old, I use the “flag” feature to mark it red, which should annoy me enough to complete the task associated with the email. Once it is complete, the email can be filed away in one of several folders (more on that later).

Sort Order

I wear multiple hats within our firm, which is not unlike many nonprofit roles. I am a consultant to our clients, I generate new business through prospecting, and I am a part of our marketing efforts. This requires me to be in contact with a lot of people at any given time as my active clients and prospects change and our internal marketing efforts shift. I cannot rely on my memory alone to trigger conversations; thus I am forced to keep emails for posterity’s sake (and for another reason mentioned under “email folders”). When an inquiry comes in and I need to reference old emails, organization is key to finding the last inquiry. The two most common sort orders I use when attempting to locate an email are “date received” and “sender.” Then I search by keywords that will likely bring the email to light. Once I have found the right email chain, I will sort by “subject line” to consolidate all emails within that folder that were a part of that email chain.

Email Folders

So, how do I manage emails once they are considered “complete” and need to move out of my inbox? Since my background includes project management, the notion of deleting an email is off the table. Nope, will not do it. I just won’t. Well, okay, there are a few exceptions: I will delete spam or promotions or maybe even competitor emails where I have shamelessly signed up for their email subscriptions. However, I do not delete client, prospect, or colleague interactions. What do I do with these emails? I have folders and subfolders (and sub-sub folders) organized in three main categories:

  1. Admin (internal)
  2. Clients
  3. Prospects

Your main folders will be different based on your job responsibilities and interactions with folks, so you will need to brainstorm what works for you. I find it best to categorize by typical interaction areas, so that could be by sender type, like my main folders are organized, or it could be by project or program type, which is how my subfolders are organized. Let me provide more insight into my subfolders to help you determine the best setup for your inbox.

Email Subfolders

My subfolders for clients and prospects are common sense: all active clients and prospects. Within a specific client subfolder, I have additional folders for individual projects. The category that took a little while to get the right setup was my Admin folder. I have adjusted it a few times, but my current setup works well…for now.

  1. Client Reports/Success: We send out weekly internal client reports so we all stay up to date on current client activities and successes. These come in handy when talking with my clients or prospects to reference what our firm is doing in the industry.
  2. Community: This folder is used for emails from people I meet in the industry or places, like NTEN or LinkedIn, where I am a member of forums, user groups, etc. I like to keep these emails so I can browse when I have a few minutes to respond to inquiries or posts. I don’t mind the 732 unread emails in this folder. They do become irrelevant at some point, so I try to purge once a quarter to save space on our email server.
  3. Old Clients: This reminds me of my accountant: you should keep records for the past 7 years. I keep records of my old clients with that same mindset.
  4. Personal: We all have crossover, whether we like it or not.
  5. Software Vendors: With the nature of our business, we are in contact with quite a few software vendors, so I have a folder that allows me to file away vendor communication that is not related to one specific client or prospect, whether it be private or subscription-based content.
  6. Systems: We have a few internal systems that send out notifications. These are really great reminders on my to-do list but typically do not need to be saved once they have been completed. This is similar to my “community” folder, as it gets purged every few months.

Good luck with project Inbox Zero! I hope my tips and tricks have provided a little more sanity in your day. Now off to tackle the 21 items in my inbox…the scroll starts at 16, so anxiety levels are rising.


Karen Collins
Karen Collins is a Senior Director at Zuri Group, a nonprofit technology and design firm. She combines technical leadership with analytical expertise to assist nonprofit organizations achieve maximum impact and efficiency from technology solutions. She enjoys collaborating with senior leadership teams to develop and execute strategic plans that align technology investments and IT services with the needs of national, international, and regional offices.