If Inbox Zero sounds good in theory but you are too busy to spend time learning a full-on System for managing your email, here is a simple way to get your email under control that you can start doing as soon as you are finished reading this post.

To get your email under control, you don’t need to read books, watch a video, buy anything, download anything, or get a fancy email app. All you have to do is start using something that is already built into your email.

One Simple Rule

Star/flag a message if you have to do something with it.

Seriously, that’s it. Take a few minutes right now to go through your inbox, select every message that represents something you have to do, and add a star or flag to them, depending on your email provider (they are the same thing, but Gmail, for example, uses stars, while Outlook and Mail.app call them flags).

To add a star/flag, you can click on the icon in the message list or while viewing the message, or you can just use a keyboard shortcut:

  • Gmail: S1
  • Outlook and Outlook.com: INSERT
  • Mail.app: Cmd+Shift+L

When you are done, you can archive everything left in your inbox if you want to. But even if you leave everything in your inbox, you can improve your productivity.

Your Email To-Do List

flagged-in-mail-app

Now go to your Starred or Flagged folder/label. From now on, that will be your to-do list. Check things off by removing the star or flag.

Going forward, don’t look at new emails in your inbox any longer than it takes to act on them immediately in about two minutes or less, or apply a flag or star. Your inbox is not your to-do list; only flagged or starred emails represent to-do items.

Even if you do not keep any other to-do lists, the to-do list in your email app can help keep you on track. In fact, you can use email as your to-do list for everything if you email tasks to yourself.2 Emailing tasks to yourself is an easy way to add a task to your to-do list from your phone, too.

Isn’t working from a list a lot easier than looking at everything that has been building up in your inbox for weeks, months, or years?

Featured image: “Illustration of a cartoon character: Running businessman overwhelmed by emails and permanent availability.” from Shutterstock.


  1. If this does not work the first time you try, you need to turn keyboard shortcuts turned on. To do this, just go to Settings and make sure the radio button next to Keyboard shortcuts on is selected. If you have to select it, scroll down and click the Save Changes button. 

  2. If your to-do list gets unmanageable this way, look into Getting Things Done. It may take some time to learn the system, but you will save so much time after you learn GTD that it is totally worthwhile.