To many, “inbox zero” is an elusive dream. The coveted “Woohoo! You’ve read all the messages in your inbox” message happens maybe a few times a year, and the moment is only fleeting. Here’s that glorious screen, in case it’s been a while since you last saw it:
When you first created your work email, you had a vision of keeping it meticulously and immaculately organized. But after even a few weeks of getting a hundred or more emails a day, that goal began to seem unachievable.
For some, inbox zero may not be a realistic possibility, just because you’re getting emails so quickly your inbox will never be empty for more than a few minutes. But even in this scenario, investing time and effort into making your email inbox cleaner, more efficient, and more organized, will be well worth it.
Table of Contents
- What Is Inbox Zero?
- Why Should You Care About Inbox Zero?
- Steps to Achieving Inbox Zero
- 1. Visualize your email habits.
- 2. Define what makes an email “done”
- 3. Learn how to search your inbox effectively.
- 4. Develop and implement a system of organization.
- 5. Set up automatic filters.
- 6. Delete, archive, or organize emails in chunks.
- 7. Schedule time each day to catch up to your inbox.
- Related posts:
What Is Inbox Zero?
Let’s start with a brief over of inbox zero, including what it is and the different versions of inbox zero.
Originally, “inbox zero” meant getting your inbox down to zero messages. You would delete, archive, or sort messages into new folders until there were literally no messages left in your inbox.
Lately, critics of inbox zero have suggested that this is not only an impossible goal, but an unproductive one. For many people, the stress of trying to get to inbox zero outweighs the benefits of achieving it—and you might mis-categorize or spend too much time on emails in the meantime.
Accordingly, some productivity experts have suggested a slightly different version of inbox zero to achieve, with a similar underlying philosophy; rather than getting your inbox to zero messages, the goal should be reducing your inbox to zero clutter, and/or improving your relationship to email overall.
Why Should You Care About Inbox Zero?
There are many potential benefits of getting to inbox zero, regardless of which exact definition you’re trying to achieve. Some of these benefits are more superficial than others. For example, some people believe achieving inbox zero will make it easier to find previous emails, since they’ll all be sorted—but if you know how to search in Gmail effectively, you can find almost any email instantly anyway.
Instead, inbox zero is about streamlining how you manage emails. If done properly, have an inbox zero mindset can reduce clutter, increase the speed at which you can handle incoming messages, and instill good habits that boost your efficiency.
Also, if you get to inbox zero—however you personally define it—you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, which can follow you in other areas of your life.
In the next section, I’ll walk you through the steps to achieving inbox zero.
Steps to Achieving Inbox Zero
Seven steps to achieving inbox zero may seem like a lot, but many of them are quick and/or easy.
1. Visualize your email habits.
First, it’s important to understand your email habits, and the factors holding you back from efficient email practices. You can use a tool to visualize your email activity (like EmailAnalytics), study your habits throughout the day from a subjective perspective, or both.
Ask yourself which email habits seem to be most in the way of your efficiency, posing the biggest obstacles in your pursuit of inbox zero.
These tend to be some of the most common:
- Failing to act on new emails. You get an email, you read it, you get distracted, and you never end up going back to it. It may not be something essential to your job, but it still takes up space in your inbox. If you don’t take action immediately, like sending a response and archiving the message, it’s going to become clutter.
- Keeping conversations open too long. Email threads can kill your productivity and take up space in your inbox. In an email thread, you’ll get a new message notification each time someone in the thread sends a new message to the group. Over time, you’ll lose track of the content of the conversation—and it may wander away from the original intent. The end result is too many inbox messages, and little clarity to help you do your job.
- Struggling with too many incoming messages. Some people get bogged down by an overabundance of new incoming messages. If you’re getting new alerts left and right, even a good organizational strategy may not be enough to keep up with them.
- Dealing with overlap and clutter. For others, the biggest hurdle is dealing with messages that overlap with one another, and miscellaneous clutter that accumulates over time. For example, do you end up letting unnecessary promotional emails accumulate in your inbox, obscuring your view of more valuable messages?
With a better understanding of your email habits, you can put together a better plan moving forward.
2. Define what makes an email “done”
Next, you need a way to consider a message in your inbox “done.” When done, you can remove the message from your primary inbox view and get one step closer to inbox zero.
So what counts as “done”?
There are a few options here, depending on what email platform you’re using. If you’re using Outlook, for example, you can place an inbox message into a separate folder, eliminating it from your inbox view. Otherwise, you can delete the message.
If you’re using Gmail, you can delete the message, mark it as read, or archive it, removing it from your inbox. As long as you’re not worried about your storage capacity, I recommend archiving.
You can also label your Gmail messages in a system that works similarly to folders, but this process won’t remove them from the inbox view; depending on your goals, this may or may not be acceptable for the pursuit of “inbox zero.”
None of these methods is “right” or “wrong,” but you should have some means of considering an email complete.
3. Learn how to search your inbox effectively.
Your next goal is learning how to search your inbox effectively. Many people rely on the default inbox view to find the messages they need to do their job; they get used to the date-based listings, and become familiar with the most recent messages they’ve received. Accordingly, they become reluctant to move those emails to different folders, or to archived messages.
You can get over this, and improve your email efficiency overall by become a master of Gmail search operators. Gmail has an intuitive and exhaustive search feature that you can use to track down practically any message, regardless of how you’ve organized it or moved it in the past.
Click on the “Search mail” icon at the top of Gmail, and click the dropdown arrow on the right. Here, you’ll have a number of different search options to choose from, including searching Gmail by date, and finding messages by From, To, Subject line, body content, size, and attachment. Mix and match these search parameters to narrow down your messages.
Outlook has a similar, but less robust search feature.
4. Develop and implement a system of organization.
When you can’t delete or archive a message, either because you’re an email hoarder (I’m not judging!) or because you need to preserve the core content of the message, you’ll need some system of organization to keep your messages straight.
There are many different organizational systems you could use to clean up your inbox, but what’s really important is your level of consistency; almost any system can work, so long as you stay committed to it.
Most people attempt to use some combination of the following:
- Folders/labels. If you’re using Outlook, you’ll need to use a series of custom folders and subfolders to keep your messages organized. In Gmail, you can use labels for the same purpose. Consider organizing your messages by category, by client, or by current status (like “Complete” or “To do.”)
- Stars and marks. Similarly, you can use the importance markers and stars built into Gmail to keep your messages organized. For example, you might mark messages that still require action as “important,” or you might star the emails that are still awaiting a response.
- Read vs. unread. Consider marking a message as “unread” if you still need to take action on it, and mark it “read” if it no longer needs your attention. It’s an instant way to make your inbox easier to discern at a glance. This is the method I use and it works great for me!
Outline your system on paper, and put it to the test in a live environment. Once you do the initial cleaning of your email inbox, this system will carry you to a consistent level of inbox zero.
5. Set up automatic filters.
Remember the dynamic search features we recapped a couple sections ago? You can use those exact search parameters to define a new automatic filter. For example, if you searched for emails from a specific client, you could set up an automatic filter to tag those emails with a specific label in the future. You can also filter emails to automatically get archived, or appear as marked a certain way.
I’ve written a complete guide on setting up Gmail filters here, so I won’t be exhaustive in my description of automatic filters in this article. Still, you should know that automatic filters have two very important benefits in the pursuit of inbox zero:
- Time savings. Instead of marking each message manually, you can simply let the filter do its job.
- Consistency. Gmail isn’t prone to the same kind of human errors that can interfere with your effectiveness. Your filter will be applied reliably for as long as it remains active.
There’s no limit to what you can do with Gmail filters, and no limit to the number of filters you can set up, so feel free to go crazy here.
6. Delete, archive, or organize emails in chunks.
Once you have an idea of how you’re going to organize your inbox, you’ll need to apply these new parameters to your current inbox. In some cases, you may be able to use a filter retroactively to apply labels or sort past emails in bulk; however, you’ll need to be careful with this. You don’t want to accidentally delete or mismark an important message.
Otherwise, you can work on deleting, archiving, and/or organizing your emails in small chunks. For example, you can commit to marking 10 old emails per day in addition to the new ones you get—a completely manageable number that will eventually get you to inbox zero. Here’s a list of our top-rated email management tools that can help with this process.
7. Schedule time each day to catch up to your inbox.
Last but not least, understand that even the most vigilant email inbox organizers aren’t perfect. That’s why it’s important to schedule time at the end of each day—even if it’s just a few minutes—to catch up on any messages you missed.
Failing that, you can schedule time once a week to catch up. Think of it as a safety net that will prevent you from falling back into your old bad habits.
Inbox zero doesn’t have to be a fantasy, and it doesn’t even have to conform to someone else’s standards. What’s important is that you feel in control of your own inbox—and that’s super achievable if you follow these steps.
Are you interested in learning more about the bad email habits making your inbox a virtual nightmare? Or do you wish you had more resources to keep your team communicating efficiently? You’ll need a tool like EmailAnalytics.
EmailAnalytics gives you access to dozens of different metrics that help you analyze your email activity—including your average response time, your number of emails sent and received, and more. Sign up for a free trial today, and get one step closer to achieving inbox zero in your own life!
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics, and co-host of the podcast The Entrepreneur Cast.