Two weeks ago I started on a journey to Inbox Zero, using Merlin Mann's tips for managing your email. After living with the tips in practice, I'm...getting there. My inbox went from 222 to an even 100 messages. I'll explain a few of the techniques I used to get there, and what's next to get to zero.
Separate work and personal messages - I have long had separate accounts for work and personal stuff, but I have always read them merged together in a single inbox. The first thing I did was start using Apple Mail's ability to view each email account as an independent mailbox. This helped me focus on the personal email messages and manage them faster than the piles of work stuff. I also made the decision to forward only personal messages to my iPhone, which emphasizes the importance of actually using this mailbox for personal correspondence.
Set up a few filters - I get a lot of email messages from an automated bug tracking system as work -- up to a few hundred messages a day. Previously this all went directly into my inbox, which required constant triage to read and delete (or act upon) all of it. Even if I didn't need to act on them, the messages were sitting there, looking at me, asking for attention. By automatically filtering this stuff to a separate folder, it reduced the volume level in my inbox -- since these automated messages were no longer in my face, I was able to devote dedicated attention (Merlin calls these sessions dashes) to managing this particular kind of message in its own mode (which involves a lot of skimming and deleting). The unsurprising truth: I don't need to act on (or know about) this stuff right away. If I ignore it for a while, most of it will be resolved by someone else, and I can just review what happened later on. This saves my attention for things that do make it into my actual inbox, that need me. The lesson here: save your inbox for things that are actually your job; if you're just getting messages to be informed, put them somewhere else.
Don't check as often - I set my desktop email application to check for new messages every thirty minutes any my iPhone every hour (and I wish there was a two-hour setting). Previously the desktop was checking every ten minutes. This significantly increases the span of time I can spend working on a task without being interrupted by the "new mail" sound, and getting curious about what's lurking under that icon. A related principle here is turn off the email application -- just quit it when you're doing something focused. I have gotten pretty good at this. The scary thing is, when I come back I'll have thirty more messages -- but this is actually good, because I can deal with those messages on their own terms, rather than in the middle of my other important work.
Delete stale, non-actionable items - This is where I need to do more work. There are still scores of messages from six to ten months before that really aren't actionable. Many are links I'm supposed to read -- which can be filed in a "to read" folder -- and many simply aren't relevant: projects that fizzled out and probably won't come back. I need to get up the courage to delete (or in my packrat case, file) all this stuff, so it's not sitting there in my inbox making me feel guilty.
Perhaps in another two weeks I'll be closer to my goal of Inbox Zero!