5 steps to an empty email inbox

Getty ImagesGetty ImagesEmail management is like dieting. You know what you're supposed to do, but you need a refresher now and then. And headlines promising "Three Ways To Tame Your Inbox," are as irresistible as those offering, "Five Foods That Will Change Your Life."

Still, eating right is easier for me than getting email under control, which is why I've sampled every program around, from those offered by experts like David Allen, Gina Trapani and Merlin Mann
to those by anyone else who claims to have the cure.
If you're wondering why I'm qualified to give advice on this, it's because my inbox has held less than 20 messages for close to two weeks. That's like shedding two dress sizes.

Full disclosure: like with dieting advice, there is nothing new here. I'm just delivering it in a new wrapper. But here's what's working for me now:

1. Do not treat your inbox as your to-do list. That means you should avoid keeping unread messages as reminders. (Hat tip to career coach, Michael Melcher, for the handy mantra.) Instead, once you've read an email, do something with it. Usually what you'll do is file, respond, or get the information out of the message and onto a to-do list or calendar.

2. Commit to the one touch rule. This simple bit of advice is recommended by many time management gurus, and it means that you will only touch a piece of email once. But how often do we read a message three times before doing anything with it? If you're not ready to deal with it (which you can usually tell by scanning the header and peeking at the preview), don't even read it.

3. Create folders and use them. Most email programs allow you to set up folders, and if yours doesn't, consider switching to one that does. Create folders called "needs follow-up," "stuff to read," "upcoming meetings," etc., so that you can deal with messages at the appropriate time. Consider printing out messages that you need a block of time to handle and put them in a priority place on your desk. If you are worried you won't ever look at a folder called "needs follow-up," calendar some time to check the follow-up folder at regular intervals, or print certain messages and put them on a bulletin board or somewhere you'll notice them.

4. Unsubscribe to unnecessary newsletters. Consider using Twitter or RSS to follow blogs and news sites. To find out what news outlets are on Twitter, check out MuckRack. As for the newsletters you decide to continue with, only open them when you're ready to quickly scan and file away. If you belong to any social networks, opt against getting updates by email; if you're interested enough in the site, visit there to see who's contacted you.

5. Send less email. Email begets email. And not all emails deserve a reply. But whenever you reply, you keep the conversation going. Some conversations are better for other media. Instant messaging works well for quick conversations. Facebook or Twitter are handy for sharing links. And occasionally, that old device called the telephone is remarkably effective.

What's working for you on email management? Please chime in, as I'll try anything to keep that inbox slim.