Blog Post

10 Tips: My Personal Journey Toward Maintaining Inbox Zero

I get a lot of email and am often frustrated when I miss an important message, just because it slipped down and out of sight into page two of my inbox. I also have a ritual of emptying my inbox and getting to inbox zero (or at least close to zero) twice a year, before my trips to visit my family for the holidays and again in July. There is something so satisfying about starting a trip with a clean inbox, and I’ve been able to get to inbox zero twice a year for many years now. However, this time I wanted to keep it at inbox zero.

My theory was that if I could get to inbox zero before the holidays and put a system in place to keep it at inbox zero that I would be able to maintain my tidy inbox by building the right set of habits while my volume of email was lower than normal. By getting in the habit during a down time, it’s been easier for me to maintain the system now that my volume of email is picking back up to its normal amount.

Here are the ten things that I am doing to keep my inbox at zero:

  1. Archive or delete mercilessly. In order to get to inbox zero the first time, you need to archive or delete mercilessly. My first pass focused on getting rid of anything that I didn’t absolutely have to respond to right away. I also archived anything more than three weeks old. Be realistic about whether you will ever respond to an email, and keep the must-haves while getting rid of any nice-to-haves.
  2. “Must Respond” folder. I created a “Must Respond” label in Gmail (s goog) (other email programs call these folders), and put it at the top of my labels. Whenever I run across something that needs anything more than a quick response, I tag it with the “Must Respond” label. During my vacation, I was able to keep up with inbox zero by dumping any email requiring a response in the “Must Respond” bucket right from my phone. I called this “Must Respond” as a reminder to myself that the “nice-to-respond” items don’t get this label.
  3. “To Read” folder. I also have a “To Read” label that I use when I am pressed for time. Email that will take more than a few minutes to read goes into this folder. This is only for the critical stuff, not those things that I would like to read if I ever had time (those get skimmed & archived). Market research reports, meaty client emails and other important communication gets the “To Read” label.
  4. Tasks. I also made sure that I had Hiveminder (my task list of choice) set up to accept emailed tasks before I left for vacation. Any emails that are really tasks get emailed to Hiveminder to get the tasks out of my inbox and into my task list where they belong.
  5. Filters. I’ve been using filters for a long time, primarily to automatically add labels to incoming emails. I have filters for each of my clients where any email coming from their domain or being sent by me to their domain gets a label for the name of the client. I also give those labels colors so that I can see at a glance when I get an email from a client. While this doesn’t directly impact inbox zero, it does let me archive with abandon without fear that I’ll lose a client email.
  6. Turn off notifications. I don’t check email constantly, and I don’t get little bings and bongs or flashing lights every time I get an email. It’s just too distracting, especially when I am focused on client work. I check it regularly, but on my own schedule. I like to check in on email during my downtime while I’m waiting for someone to call, waiting for a page to load, or during other downtime, and I make sure that I at least glance at it every 30 minutes.
  7. Process in chunks. I like to work in chunks, so even when I “check” my email, I don’t usually touch it unless I have at least a few minutes to focus on processing it. I also try to do this processing when I need a break from another chunk of work. For example, if I’ve been working for two solid hours on a client project, I might take a 15 minute break to do an email chunk before getting back to client work. In these email chunks, I respond to what I can, file others into “Must Respond” / “To Read” folders and archive anything that doesn’t need a response.
  8. Canned responses. I’m starting to use more canned responses (also called email templates) for common questions or frequent emails. You can still customize them, but it saves a lot of time if you have the meat of the email already in place (Celine gives more tips on using canned responses here).
  9. Unsubscribe. One key to keeping email under control is to get less of it. I’m being more honest with myself about email newsletters and other updates that aren’t really valuable. If I don’t absolutely need the information and don’t look forward to reading it, I unsubscribe.
  10. Be realistic. Be honest with yourself about how much email you can realistically respond to without sacrificing more important goals. Use shorter responses whenever possible, and don’t beat yourself up when you just don’t have time to respond to something.

The key to maintaining inbox zero is to find a process that works for you and then stick to it. It isn’t rocket science, and it takes a a time commitment to get everything set up at the beginning. However, if you set up a process that really works, you will spend less time on email while doing a better overall job of managing your inbox, instead of letting your inbox manage you.

What are your tips for managing your inbox?

Photo credit: Flickr user shareski / CC BY-SA 2.0

12 Responses to “10 Tips: My Personal Journey Toward Maintaining Inbox Zero”

  1. Shawn taylor

    Sadly, I am going to email this article to myself, so I can take the time to really soak it in. Hopefully it won’t get lost below the fold.

  2. Wonderer

    I have created a few filters so certain items from certain domain names go to certain folders automatically

    I have a temp folder where I put things I may need to refer to once or twice then delete, this folder keeps things I need shortly out of my inbox and the folder can be emptied without even having to sort through it

    I also have a folder called confirmation/receipts where I put exactly that, confirmations that I may need to get one day, like confimation that i paid AT&T on July. 12, 2009

    Another folder is the Important folder where I save things that are presumably important. 

    Lastly is the Archived folder where I archive everything else I want to save but don’t want to save on my inbox. 

    Of these, the Archive, Temp and the Filters are my most important tools in conjunction with unsubscribing from things indont read and not kidding my self about things I can do without reading. Setting up a system is more important than actually slaving once every year or two to clean your inbox only to get hundreds or thousands of items again. 

  3. I have been unsubscribing mercilessly for the last year and it makes inbox zero far, far easier.

    If I find myself deleting an email immediately then chances are I will unsubscribe from the list. If I do it twice then I unsubscribe without delay.

    It is interesting how some companies are so bad at processing unsubscribe requests.

    HP is dreadful, I have unsubscribed from an old iPaq list 5 times.


    • If the company is bad at processing unsubscribe requests, I just create a rule to automatically delete anything from them.

      If there is a possibility that something might come from the same company in the future, I have a “hold and check” label/folder which I check once a week, so I create a rule to have the email put there.