Business person reading email on smartphone and laptop

Email is neither dead nor obsolete. It is, in fact, increasing by 10+ billion emails per day and too many of those will end up in your inbox. Here’s how to get a grip and not let them overwhelm you.

If your inbox is a desert of minimalist white and you swiftly deal with the occasional email that dares sully the pristine tidiness, this probably isn’t for you. We’ve got lots more things to read that will be of more interest to you. But if you’ve got an inbox with hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of emails in it, you need a way to get things under control. “Inbox Zero,” which aims to keep your inbox empty, is trendy—but we have a superior solution.

We’re going to focus on a system known as OHIO, or “Only Handle It Once,” but not in a way that many people have misinterpreted it. OHIO is an information management principle that put simply, says you should only handle information the smallest number of times that is required—ideally once. As an efficiency aide, this is very useful. But, as with all good ideas, some people have taken it to extremes and preached OHIO as a golden rule that must be taken literally. This is both unnecessary and counter-productive, especially when it comes to dealing with email.

What Does “OHIO” Mean?

“Only Handle It Once” doesn’t mean that you should read an email once and never reread it—that doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes you need to read an email several times to understand it, especially if the person sending it doesn’t understand brevity. OHIO also doesn’t mean you should never see the contents of the email again once it’s left the inbox. That doesn’t make sense either because it forces you to respond to every email then and there, with no thought given to your current priorities or responsibilities.

What “Only Handle It Once” does mean is that you should only deal with an email in your inbox once. After you’ve understood the email, you should deal with it—“handle it”—and then either delete or archive it. You might see the information in the email many more times as part of a to-do list task or in preparation for a meeting, but you should never see the email in your inbox again. You Only Handle It Once.

Why Is OHIO Useful?

OHIO is pretty simple to understand, but why do we recommend it? What’s the benefit of only dealing with an email in your inbox once? Well, the answer is straightforward: Your inbox is not an archive, a bin, a filing cabinet, or a dumping ground. It’s an inbox!

When you have hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox, they quickly get buried—and out of sight is out of mind. It’s much harder to find specific emails, it makes your mail client work more slowly (even if you access your email through a browser like Gmail), and it uses up your storage (which is a particular problem if you use the Outlook or Apple Mail apps in your phone).

The bottom line: There’s no point keeping all of your emails in your inbox and plenty of good reasons not to. “Only Handle It Once” is a system that encourages you to do something with an email once you’ve read it—to handle it—and whether you ultimately archive the email or delete the email, it won’t stay in your inbox.

What Does “Handle” Mean, Exactly?

“Handle” means that once you’ve understood the email, you do one or more of the following things:

  • Reply to the email.
  • Forward the email.
  • Organize a meeting about the email.
  • Turn the email into a to-do list item.
  • Do nothing (if none of the four options above are needed)

After you’ve done whatever you need to do with the email, you either delete the email or archive it. You do not leave the email in your inbox once you’ve handled it.

Don’t have time to handle an email right now? That’s fine—you’re not pursuing Inbox Zero, and a lingering email in your inbox isn’t a failure, only a task you haven’t tackled yet. Just make sure to handle the email when you have a minute.

OK, That Makes Sense. How Do I Implement OHIO?

The easiest way to implement OHIO is to use a straightforward flow chart.

A simple flowchart

For each email you have in your inbox, you handle it, and then you either delete or archive the email. That’s it.

If that seems oddly simple, that’s because it is. OHIO as a principle is simple, and the implementation should be simple, too. The aim is to help you get a grip on your inbox by clearing it down using a simple decision-making process. When you look at an email, you reply to it, forward it, set up a meeting about it, turn it into a to-do list item, or do nothing if none of those options are needed. You then delete the email if you don’t need to keep it and archive it if you do it. Rinse and repeat with the next email until your inbox is empty.

If this sounds suspiciously like another way of achieving “Inbox Zero” then don’t worry, it’s not. Or at least, not in the way people typically think of Inbox Zero.  Yes, there is some benefit (and satisfaction) to having an empty inbox, but that’s not the ultimate aim here.  OHIO will help you get to the actual point of the Inbox Zero philosophy, which is that you spend only the time you need to spend in your inbox and it isn’t a source of stress for you.

It might take days or weeks to empty your inbox using OHIO, so don’t lose heart. Every email you OHIO is a victory! And as long as you’re comfortable with the mail you’ve got in your inbox, you’re doing fine. OHIO is a process, not a goal. Here are some tips to help you make a success of it.

  • Start by trying to deal with the email from today. Aim to have no email from today in your inbox when you leave work in the evening.
  • Set aside a little time each Friday (or whatever your last day of the workweek is) to handle any emails from the week just gone that have slipped through.
  • Set up your Reading pane options in Outlook the way you like, or turn on the hidden Preview pane in Gmail.
  • If you’re in Gmail, you’ve got an Archive button and a Delete button. Use them!
  • If you’re in Outlook, set up a quick step to mark an item as read and archive it in one easy go.
  • Use your smartphone to handle email when you’re in line at a store, on a train, sitting in an Uber or Lyft, or whenever you have some time during a workday.

Above all, keep going! The email will keep coming, but if you can get on top of it using OHIO, it’s much easier to stay on top of it in the future.

Profile Photo for Rob Woodgate Rob Woodgate
Rob Woodgate is a writer and IT consultant with nearly 20 years of experience across the private and public sectors. He's also worked as a trainer, technical support person, delivery manager, system administrator, and in other roles that involve getting people and technology to work together.
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