So far my attempt to maintain an empty inbox is working out pretty well.
One of the most effective things that worked was to get rid of folders. Previously, I was a folder freak: my email was "organized" into a bewildering, ever changing, hierarchy of folders. Rather than making it easier to find stuff, it was actually much harder. Before I could find something quickly, I had to try to figure out which folder I had decided to put it into.
I draw a comparison between this and usage of, say, Google Search vs. a directory service like dmoz. Directory services categorize the web into a wonderful hierarchy. But in practice, it's almost always more effective to just search the conceptual single folder containing the whole web via google search.
I now have a small number of folders. Apart from the inbox, trash, and sent folder, the remaining folders can be categorized as:
- A single @Respond folder. Messages that I need to respond to, but can't do so immediately because they require some investigation go here. I treat this like a todo list, and review it several times a day.
- A single Archive folder. Anything that I don't need to keep track of actively, but might be interesting for future reference goes here. This is where the vast majority of email that I don't delete ends up.
- Important short term projects for which it's convenient to collocate all the messages. I currently have a single folder that falls into this category, for tracking correspondence related to my green card application. Although I have several other important short term projects, none of them really need a separate folders.
- High-volume, low value mailing lists auto filters. For instance, I have a folder called Bugs into which gets automatically filtered all notification emails from our bug database system. I rarely have to act immediately on such emails, but it's useful to review them once or twice a day. I usually mass delete the contents of these folders on a daily basis, since they're basically copies of information available elsewhere.
As a result of this, I now have roughly 5 folders (not including inbox, trash and sent). This works well for me. It speeds up the rate at which I can process incoming email, since there are fewer choices about which action to take for each incoming message.