5 Tips to Help You Achieve "Inbox Zero"

 
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I don’t mean to brag, but there’s currently a single email sitting in my inbox. It’s from a friend and I intend to respond to it later this evening.

Okay, I get what that sounds like.

I do mean to brag a little bit. When you can get an inbox down to one email after staring at a veritable mountain of them, I think that should be deserving of some praise. Who can blame me?

I’ll say it now and I’ll reiterate it later—achieving Inbox Zero is an accomplishment and we should all be proud of them. There’s no room for shame anywhere.

Get that nonsense outta here.

It’s not an easy accomplishment, though. Many people have a bad habit of treating their inbox as their only storage place for everything that gets thrown at them throughout the day.

It doesn’t help that email is treated by companies and senders as nonexistent once the “Send” button is hit.

Is it any wonder why important emails get buried under a heap of junk, why our “Unread” counts can number in the thousands, or why the very thought of tackling this issue can cause real anxiety?

Sure, a single email is hardly anything. It’s weightless. Nothing more than a few kilobytes of text and images.

A torrent of single emails, though. Well, that’s a different story. They all add up and suddenly you’re face to face with a relentless monster that looks like something out of our worst nightmares...

 
A screenshot of a Gmail inbox showing way too many unread emails.
 

Just...ugh.

I don’t want you to have even ten unread emails, much less thousands.1 I want you to walk around with a skip in your step because you no longer have the weight of unread emails on your shoulders.


1. Understand that this is a time commitment

Inboxes have gotten so bad that email services and applications have had to invent so-called “time saving” features, like snoozing emails or “Focused” inboxes, to combat the issue. Those features, when used for their intended purpose, can be beneficial, but they can also be used as an excuse for procrastination.

Let’s face the facts here. Clearing up your emails is going to take an investment of your time. There’s no other way around it.

This is the first tip because it’s the one I want you to really internalize. There is no progress without real commitment.

Work on carving out a chunk of time during your day that you can devote to going through your inbox and clearing it out. Trash things, mark others for later, send some quick replies.

It doesn’t have to be an hour of your time. Even ten minutes of your focused attention is enough to have a beneficial effect on your inbox.

The key word here is “focused.” Keep distractions out of your mind if you want to clear the distractions out of your inbox.

This is tough. I get it. But I believe in you, dear reader. You got this.

2. The trash can is your best friend

I think it’s a fair assumption to say that most of what’s cluttering up your inbox is useless or outdated junk.

That email from your bank saying savings account interest rates have gone from 0.0000001% to 0.0000002%? Unnecessary.

Another privacy policy update from a shoe retailer you haven’t shopped at in three years? Pointless.

The fourth email this week from Netflix telling you about those shows saved in your queue that you already know about? Utter garbage!

Your inbox is not your trash can. Your trash can is your trash can.

Get reacquainted with the “Delete” button like your life depends on it. Make a game out of it—if you don’t delete those emails quickly enough the zombie virus being safely stored in an underground bunker beneath Los Angeles is going to get out and turn everyone into shuffling, brain-obsessed monsters.

Do it for the safety of the world, please.

3. Unsubscribe from newsletters

And be merciless about it.

Maybe you like to stay on the lookout for the latest 50% off deals on yarn at Michael’s. First, I salute you; I love me some knitting. Second, keep the newsletters that bring you some real happiness or benefit.

Unsubscribe from all the rest. Every. Single. One.

They should have no place in your life. They’ve abused the privilege of taking up space in your inbox by showing up every day.

At the very bottom of those newsletters you’ll be able to find, usually in faint, small letters, a link to unsubscribe from future emails.

 
The bottom fine print text of an email, showing how to unsubscribe from any further mass emails.
 

Click that button and relish the feeling of having to deal with one less thing fighting for your valuable attention.

If that link isn’t there for some reason, mark the email as junk and let the automation of your inbox take care of that transgression.

I can just about guarantee you don’t need regular updates from that haberdashery you visited seven years ago and haven’t gone back since. I promise it’ll be okay.

4. Create folders with a broad focus

I’ve been focusing on scorching the inbox earth so far, but that’s not always going to be the best option. Clearly, there are some important or meaningful emails you’re going to want to keep.

I say, keep them. Keep them forever and ever!

Quick note: this doesn’t necessarily apply to the email chain you had going with your coworkers about that important project a few quarters ago. If that stuff has no relevance to things going on today, then get rid of it.

Past importance doesn’t always equal present importance.

Emails that are important or have some sentimental value should be saved, but they should be saved with careful intention. Every email service/app should give you the ability to create folders you can place emails into.

 
An organized and helpful assortment of email folders designed to facilitate a clean inbox.
 

Create those folders. Use broad terms like “Family,” “Finances,” and “Clients.” Get that folder system going and stick to it.

It’ll take some practice, but it’ll feel great to have a dedicated place for everything you want to save.

5. Use the search function

Like folders, any email service/app worth using is going to have a way to search through the emails you’ve received and organized. Typically, there’s a search bar you can find at the top of the email window or inbox list.

 
The Gmail search box being highlighted to show how to access it in the mail window.
 

Start typing in some keywords and watch as the emails you’re looking for are found and displayed for you in a neat list.

Say you’re looking for an email from your friend Bryan that he sent to you before last August. There are certain “operators,” or specific search terms, you can use to bring up emails that match the criteria you type.

from:bryan AND before:2018/08/01

Here, you’re searching for emails specifically from “Bryan” that he sent to you before August 1, 2018.2 I’m using search terms for the popular Gmail service. Other Gmail search operators can be found here: https://support.google.com/mail/answer/7190?hl=en.

Getting into the habit of searching for an email instead of scrolling around for it takes an adjustment, but it’ll save you loads of time.


Inbox Zero doesn’t have to be your own personal Mt. Everest. I promise you can regain control of an unruly and untidy heap of emails.

It’s not the impossible task that so many people make it out to be. It just takes time and patience.

Those two things can feel like they’re in short supply, even at the best of times, but they’re the only two things you need to achieve your organized inbox goal.

It won’t be easy at first. There’s no point in fooling yourself into thinking it will be. However, devoting time to it will be worth it.

And I’ll be so freaking proud of your great accomplishment 🥳

Achieve zero, cats.

  1. Or hundreds of thousands. At that point, the inbox should probably just be set on fire. ↩︎
  2. Gmail uses the yyyy/mm/dd date format in searches. ↩︎