1. Clear email twice a day. Don't try to keep your inbox clean the entire day. Instead, try clearing your inbox in the morning before you even get to work, and then again at night before your workday is finished. Stop stressing in the middle of the day when your inbox is overwhelmed; try closing your inbox, or at the very least, turning off new email notifications. That way, you'll stay on point with your tasks for the day, and won't get distracted by new messages.
2. Transfer tasks to your to-do list. If an email requires more action than a quick reply, put it on your to-do list and archive it. Your inbox should not act as your task management system. It puts undue pressure on your productivity and means you'll never see a clean inbox. Some task management systems will let you forward an email to their servers and automatically add it to your to-do list. Use these systems to automate managing your inbox and make it a bit more effortless.
3. Create auto-responders and templates. Use canned responses when you often reply with the same text to many different emails. Many email systems allow you to use extensions to create this functionality, but you can also save drafts of your template and copy-and-paste your canned response if your office requires an older system.
4. Ruthlessly unsubscribe from lists. Shopping promotions, email newsletters, and sales pitches all compete for attention with your important emails. At the bottom of each of these emails is an "unsubscribe" link—use it! Any time you receive a junk email unsubscribe and watch how your inbox magically lightens. If you're worried you might miss something, try filtering the emails out for a week, and then going back to see if you want to go through them. If the answer is no, you know you can let go.
5. Use filters and tags. Email systems like Gmail allow you to create automatic filters to help you organize your inbox and appropriately designate emails to their rightful place. A short five minutes will save a lot of your sanity later. For instance, you can filter out your Twitter followers and family chain letters to read at a later date. Tools like Boomerang, which allow you to schedule and receive mail at a later date, can also help clear low-priority emails from today's inbox.
6. Batch your replies. If you have several projects or clients all crowding your inbox, try responding and acting on the emails focused on one specific project at a time. Once that correspondence has been handled, move onto the next project until your inbox is clear. By avoiding switching your mental state from one idea to another, you'll be able to be more efficient in your work and communications.
Achieving inbox zero isn't for the faint of heart, and it realistically won't happen every day. But by putting these five systems in place, you can increase your productivity and re-align your focus to the work that matters.
Rebecca Thorman's weekly blog Kontrary offers tips to create the career, bank account, and life you love, and is a popular destination for young professionals. Her goal is to help you find meaningful work, enjoy the heck out of it, and earn more money. She writes from Washington, D.C.