Shocked man busy sending messages emails from smart phone email icons flying of mobile phone

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 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 INSERT
  • 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


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?

Originally published 2014-09-26. Republished 2017-07-05.

  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. 


  1. Dan Durocher says:

    I use this system for the most part. It works very well for me. Give it a try. I think you’ll like it.

  2. Rich Cassidy says:

    Great post. I love it. Particularly if you email to dos to yourself, it ties in with a basic time management rule that I follow: Keep one to do list and keep everthing on it.

  3. Spencer Stromberg says:

    This is a great suggestion. I’m going to give it a try. The sheer volume of email I receive makes it very difficult to avoid missing important emails (and a constant source of anxiety). Thanks.

  4. Sam, I like your idea, but my philosophy is a little bit different. What I do is simply batch my email. I turn it off and only check it at noon and five. If I need to send out an email in the interim I do it, but I don’t let myself get sucked into the time warp of email.

    At noon I go through it for an hour. I eliminate everything that is junk or unnecessary, I forward everything I can delegate with short instructions, and I reply to anything that I can take care of immediately. That way the only stuff left in my inbox is stuff that I have to take action on.

    I’ve come to see email as the to-do list for everyone else, not myself (I didn’t come up with this idea but I can’t remember where I first heard it). There are very few things that come over email that are emergencies that can’t wait to be taken care of until later. In between 8-12 and 1-5 I take care of the things that are important to me, not important to those out there that want my attention.

    Good article. It’s something that, if approached intentionally, can have a big impact on your productivity.

  5. Rick Hahn says:

    I use the flag system but I have flags for different reasons.
    Red Flag To Do
    Yellow Needs Calendaring
    Green Flag $$ opportunity that needs follow up.
    Purple Flag Vendor \ Purchase related email that need followup
    Grey Flag anything from the above that is now done.
    Then a few times a week I go through and use these flags to organize appointments, todos and general productivity. The flags just keep it on my radar so it does not get dropped.

  6. Monte Schatz says:

    Excellent suggestion Sam. I think many of us are guilty of using our inboxes as our to do lists and it is a bad habit as well as a mistake or oversight waiting to happen if we don’t get our inbox messages down to a manageable size. Also like Rick Hahn’s color flaging to refine things more. Great article!

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