Working Towards Inbox Zero
A little upfront work goes a long way in the email game
I started hearing the term “Inbox Zero” a few years ago when I was first really diving into the productivity and planner communities. Inbox Zero is a concept of email management that essentially means keeping your inbox empty or mostly empty. It’s about keeping the number of emails in your inbox to a minimum. Having some white space at the bottom of the screen. Keeping your email clean and tidy.
I think it’s important to stress that it doesn’t mean your inbox is always “zero” or empty, but that you’re on top of it what’s coming through your inbox and not intimidated by it when you open it. Allow yourself the grace that your inbox will never be empty (or empty for long) so that’s an unreasonable standard to hold yourself to. But it does mean you have control over your inbox, you know how to process it, and you can find the information you need quickly with minimal fuss.
I used to be one of those people who let all the emails linger in her inbox, not deleting enough, missing things because I had already read them and forgot about them, and not being very active with how I treated email generally. I’m generally a pretty neat and tidy person, but my email was not that at all, and sometimes I dreaded opening up my email. Eventually, I decided enough was enough and learned some new habits to keep on track with my email, both personally and professionally.
This is what I’ve developed as my Inbox Zero system:
- Delete the junk. Promotional emails, unless for something I need in the near future, can be deleted first to clear out the bulk. You may think you’re going to take advantage of that 40% off coupon, but by the time you get around to it, the coupon will have long expired. If you notice that you’re always deleting a store’s emails, take a moment and unsubscribe so you don’t have to deal with them more.
- Process the “two-minute” emails. What can be replied to or dealt with in two minutes? What’s the most pressing? Most things will need a more thoughtful reply, but you can respond to meeting invites, acknowledge receiving materials, etc.
- Set emails to “read later.” Frequently when I’m checking my email, there are newsletters I want to spend more leisurely time reading. You can flag or star them in your inbox so you return to it. My system is to forward it to my Todoist “Reading List” project and save it for a later time of day.
- Archive emails you no longer need. Once I’ve read an email, replied to it, or otherwise processed it, I archive it. Gmail and most email providers come with a decent amount of digital storage, and search functions are robust. If I need an email someone wrote me eight months ago, it doesn’t take long to find it again in my archive. But I don’t need it to hang out in my inbox clogging things up.
- Reply to or otherwise process the remaining emails by the end of the day. You won’t always be able to answer your emails by the end of the day, but it’s something to aim for. When you’re consistently processing your inbox, you can know with a surety that what remains is a priority to be addressed in a timely manner.
It’s important to remember that your email inbox is not a to-do list. It’s a communication tool. Things that come into your inbox are temporarily useful. Actions that need to be taken should be put into a task management system out of your email.
There’s absolutely no need to have to scroll through your inbox to find that one email you know you need to respond to or reference when half your inbox is expired coupons and junk you didn’t even open. Do yourself a favor and work on developing the system and habits you need for long-term email inbox health.