A month ago, I had thousands and thousands of emails in my gmail inbox. Some of them had been read, some of them had not. Some of them were tagged "shopping," or "events," some of them were not. Some of them were items I had meant to deal with by the next day, but then they dropped off the front page and I stopped thinking about them. Some of them were the totally useless emails that made the action items drop off the front page.
It was not a good system. It was a lot of work to deal with my inbox since I had to weed through multiple pages just to see a couple days' worth of mail. And frankly, even when I did this work, things were slipping through the cracks - important things like handbag sales and invitations to parties. This could not stand. Gmail has a lot of optional organizational features, such as tags and filters. I used tags, but not comprehensively. I also used a starring system, but again, not comprehensively, and I never archived. My inbox went back to the day I opened the gmail account.
Now, things are better. I currently have 16 items in my inbox, and a much more robust system in place for tagging, archiving and acting on incoming messages. I know that for many people, INBOX ZERO is the holy grail of email management, but that is not the case for me. I recently read the post "27 Ways to get More Sh!t Done" on Greatist. I agree with nigh unto everything in that post, but only nigh unto, because their twelfth Way to Get More Sh!t Done is, "12. Hit inbox zero. Sort every email once that inbox is open. Respond, file, draft, or delete. Keeping the inbox clean is key to staying organized and on point."
I like emails associated with the pending tasks or experiments on my horizon to stay handy in my inbox. Right now, I've got an email from the airline about my Thanksgiving travel, the purchase confirmation for an order that has not yet arrived, an emailed query to which the answer must be carefully crafted, etc. in my inbox. Some of these are things that I know will require me to act; some are merely things that might require me to act if things go wrong, but they all need to stay in the forefront of my thoughts. As soon as I take those flights, I'll archive the email from the airline.
Here's what I did to get there:
I slogged. Over the course of several evenings, I skimmed through years' worth of inbox, replying with chagrin where appropriate, and setting many many filters that would tag things for me as much as possible. I used broad categories when possible (SHOPPING, EVENTS, SOCIAL MEDIA) and narrow categories when necessary (SPRING 2013 CONFERENCE PREP).
Then I archived by filter. A lot. And then I slogged through the unfiltered stuff some more. And filtered it. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Here's what I do now:
When I check my email now, I'm presented with a few unread emails and 10-20 emails that have been sitting in my inbox for a while. I read, tag, and/or archive the new stuff immediately. And then - this part is key - I also scan the old stuff - if it has become actionable, I act on it; if it has become archive-able I archive it. As long as I keep the inbox to one display page (30 or fewer) this is totally do-able and makes for much quicker and more efficient email use.