I shutter at the sight of some of my friends and colleagues email accounts. 500 unread messages, many of which have stars of various colors. Not to worry they say, "most of it is junk mail." There between the thickets of promo-ads from Bed Bath and Beyond and coupons from Yankee Candle sit several important emails that stand a good chance of being overlooked. While this kind of "system" may be easier for some, I find organization is key to increased productivity, and artistic freedom. It may take a bit of time to set up at first, but the benefits are worth the effort.
Here are the techniques I've used to achieve "Inbox Zero".
1) Set your Gmail account to Priority Inbox. This will break the inbox into smaller sections. As you can see in the screen shot below, my "Inbox" is set to only show unread messages.
2) Create a Label called "Action Items". Should I read an email that I can't answer at that moment, I simply label it as an "Action Item". It will then remain visible in the action inbox, but will no longer show as unread.
3) If it's an email I don't need to act on but just want to keep fresh in my mind, I give it a star. It's perfect for reminders that don't necessarily need an action right away.
The above steps are important, but perhaps the biggest impact you can make is by unsubscribing from the junk. The rule of thumb is, if you usually delete a companies emails without even opening it, you need to unsubscribe.
Using this approach, I unsubscribed from 90% of the marketing emails I received. For those companies I still want to hear from, I changed the settings so send less frequent updates, like once a month instead of a daily notification.
Every time I buy anything in a store, the cashier inevitably asks for my email address. My response is simple, "I'm already on your list."
In just over a month of using this new method, I've dramatically reduced the number of unnecessary times my phone dings, and tablet chirps. It's made email work for me rather than the other way around. Give it a try.