This is a concept from the "Getting Things Done" book. The idea is not to use your email inboxas a primary storage device for conversations, contracts, quotes, approvals, or internal memos. Let's face it, when was the last time you need to retrieve a signed contract from 4 months ago? You likely have to eye-ball through hundreds of emails one at a time, perhaps opening each attachments until you find the right one.
How long did that exercise take you? 30 seconds? 2 minutes? 5 minutes? "No too long" is probably what's your answer will be. But based on the "Getting Things Done" reference file system, the idea is to be able to retrieve the document within seconds, and keeping a conscious effort to keep your email inbox clutter free by deleting or filing all incoming and outgoing emails. I schedule a review of all new incoming emails every 30 - 45 minutes, and close the email client in between so I can concentrate on my projects / tasks.
Here is how I classify each incoming emails:
2 minute rule - respond now
Any emails that have an immediate next action, and if that action can be completed within 2 minutes, will be completed immediately. Think typing a reply to move the conversation along or give an answer, or entering data into your ERP system. These actions are designed to mark tasks generated by these emails complete, and reply to the sender to close the loop. These emails will then be deleted or filed in the appropriate reference files.
@ Action - single or multi-part actions that takes more than 2 minutes to complete - act on them later
Emails that require actions that takes more than 2 minute to complete should be filed in this folder so you can mark for action later in the day. The idea is to "move-on" to the next email so emails will not accumulate in the inbox. The temptation here is to get suck in on these projects and ended up taking 15 - 60 minutes of your workday, while rest of the emails remain unattended to. File these emails in this folder, and set a recurring task in your daily workflow to get through them every day. You may not be able to empty out your @ Action folder every day, but you can dedicate a block of time each day to chip away.
@ Waiting for someone - Emails replies that has no action until someone else replies
These are often emails you got cc-ed on. Projects that involve multiple people and you don't own the next action. Or emails from your sent box requesting an update or next action from someone else will be filed under this folder. The idea is to go through this folder at least once a day, so you can send follow-up notes for updates. It is critical you build a daily review of this folder so things don't "fall through the cracks".
@ Someday maybe - Emails that is good o save, but have no immediate next action associated
We all get these email once in a while. Marketing emails from other companies that you want to check out, project idea emails from your coworkers that has no next action on, or things you want to explore later on can all be filed under this folder. Unless the other two folders, you don't necessary need to review them everyday. Once a week will likely be sufficient so you can determine whether you want to activate them as a project, or continue to be left in this folder for future review.
Force yourself to have an empty inbox
All these folders are designed to keep your inbox clean and empty. I've found this system to be very useful because it keep my mind clear. I don't have to worry about inbox being cluttered with emails that I do not need to keep, and I do not have to worry about emails that contain next actions I need to act on and forgot. Chances are, your inbox will not stay empty for very long as new emails continues to flow in. But this workflow enable me to have full control on all incoming task, classify them into next action or waiting for someone, and stay on top of all tasks / projects.