Inbox Zero

Volume 39 Number 4


About the Author

Laura A. Calloway is director of the Alabama State Bar’s Practice Management Assistance Program, and a past chair of ABA TECHSHOW.

Law Practice Magazine | July/August 2013 | The Big Ideas IssueLATELY I FEEL LIKE I’ve been inundated by a tsunami of email. No one I work with sends letters anymore, and fewer and fewer people seem willing to just pick up the phone when they have a simple question or request. As a result, my email inbox has become more and more jammed with all types of communications, everything from the ridiculous to the sublime.

I’m all in favor of convergence. Channeling all communications into a single point of access is a great way to make sure that everything is received and reviewed, but the sheer volume of messages sometimes threatens to sink the system. And attempting to manage one’s work from the email inbox makes about as much sense as trying to manage a practice from a stack of paper letters in a conventional inbox on the corner of the desk. So, whenever I start getting that out-of-control feeling that my inbox is too full, that I’m not focusing on my priorities and important items are slipping through the cracks, I know I have to take some time to clear things out. Fortunately, I have a system that works pretty well for me. Hopefully, it can help you, too.

The current holy grail of email management is the empty inbox. Systems that achieve this are often referred to as Inbox Zero, RAFT (Refer, Act, File or Toss) or OHIO (Only Handle It Once). The idea behind all these systems is that you deal with each item in your inbox only once by doing what lawyers hate to do most: making a decision now about how to handle the message, taking the necessary action immediately and never looking back.


Most email clients, and especially Microsoft Outlook, make it pretty easy to filter messages into folders other than your inbox. If yours is currently full of things that you wish you’d never received in the first place, your first step is to set up some rules that will automatically funnel those messages away from your inbox and into other appropriate folders, as discussed in the box at right. If you’re relatively free of such messages right now, go ahead and create your filtering rules and then add senders or other criteria to the rules as you receive more messages of this type.

I maintain one folder for each of the email lists to which I subscribe and another for the people who never seem to send me anything but jokes, links to silly videos and invitations to Tupperware parties. Check these folders once each day, just in case something important has slipped through, and then ignore them until the next day. You’ll be amazed at how much time you’ll save when you resist the urge to review messages of this type whenever they arrive.


The next step is a little harder. When reading each message you must decide immediately whether it is something you must do, something you can forward to someone else in the office to do, something you would like to keep for future reference but need not act on or something you will never do, no matter how much time elapses or how much the sender pleads.

At this point, the two-minute rule comes into play. If you can handle an item in two minutes or less, whether that means doing it yourself or forwarding it with appropriate instructions to someone else, then you must handle it immediately. This will usually be the case with items which you refer, file or toss, whether by just deleting or sending back a quick, firm but polite message denying the sender’s request. (Caveat: All of these little two-minute items can add up, so be sure that you allocate an hour or so at the beginning of each day, or a half hour a couple of times throughout the day, to handle them. If you are anxious to get on to other work, there is a tendency to overlook these items for the time being, but doing so will undermine the system.)

If the item cannot be handled in two minutes or less, then it needs to be sorted into either a high-priority or a low-priority folder or, even better, immediately turned into a task and scheduled for an appropriate block of time on your calendar so that you can get it done.

There is a split of opinion as to whether or not it’s a good idea to use a folder full of messages as a to-do list. I think it all comes down to how you best handle scheduled tasks. If your tendency is to file them away and never get around to looking in that folder again, then it’s much better to drag them to the calendar or otherwise add them to your to-do list, however you maintain it. Either way, though, your goal is to empty your inbox each time you check it.


When I began practicing (back in the horse-and-buggy days), we received mail twice each day. In the morning, someone would go to the post office and bring the mail from the box. Then, later in the afternoon, the mailman would come by with anything that had been addressed to our street address. Just as we didn’t run to the post office multiple times each hour to see if something new had arrived, you should try to avoid constantly checking your email. Check it no more frequently than every two hours, in between blocks of time set out for getting your work done. This will help you to stay focused. I also recommend turning off all sounds and visual indications that you have new email. If it’s absolutely necessary that you be aware immediately of new messages from a certain client or judge, set a special tone just for that sender and train yourself to ignore the rest.

The empty inbox systems are great for getting your inbox cleared out, which always makes you feel better and helps you avoid an inbox that is so cluttered you can’t tell when you have important new messages. Try it and see what you think.




Outlook 2010 makes it very easy to set up rules to filter messages before they even reach your inbox, or to quickly file them away once they do.


To easily add someone’s messages to your Junk folder (you can always change your mind later), in Outlook 2003, 2007 and 2010, right-click on a message from the person and select Junk Email | Add to Blocked Senders List or Block Sender. The message in question, and all future messages from that address, will automatically be moved to the Junk E-mail folder, where they’ll stay until you either decide one or more of them are important and refile them, or delete them. If you change your mind, you can select the item and then click the Mark as Not Junk button, although it may take a few times before Outlook catches on.


Outlook Rules let you create customized filters to separate and file incoming mail based on an almost limitless variety of criteria. You can create rules to filter messages based on who they are to (just you, or groups or mailing lists), who they are from, and words in the subject or body of the message.


To create a rule within Outlook 2003 or 2007, click on Tools | Rules and Alerts, and the Rules and Alerts dialog box will open. Select New Rule, and you’ll get a Rules Wizard that will walk you through the process. Outlook 2010 has a Rules icon on the ribbon, under the Home tab, in the Move group. From this icon, you can create new rules, or choose a default option to always move messages from that person to a location of your choice.


You can also filter messages into folders, flag messages from a particular sender or delete designated messages without even having to look at them. The Desktop Alerts feature will allow you to designate a special sound when you receive an email from a particular person, such as a managing partner or extremely demanding client.


Message filtering is particularly useful because it allows you to set up folders for different cases or levels of priority and send specific types of messages straight to them. Then, all it takes is a glance at your mail Favorite Folders to tell when you have new messages that may need immediate attention, and when new messages can wait until later.