So. Much. Email.
If you’re like most people, you probably have dozens, if not hundreds of emails pouring into your inbox. It can be utterly overwhelming. Trying to stay on top of everything and determine what to respond to and what to ignore can feel like an impossible task.
Enter the inbox zero approach.
Believe it or not, it is possible to end each day with an empty inbox. Sound crazy? You might be surprised.
In this guide, we’ll lay out a proven process for achieving inbox zero. We’ll also discuss apps that can automate your email routine and make achieving inbox zero even easier.
Inbox Zero: What Is It And Where Did It Come From?
Inbox Zero doesn’t mean that you must, at all times, keep your inbox totally empty, although this is possible if you so desire. Instead, Inbox Zero is a framework to help you reduce the time spent thinking about your inbox.
Merlin Mann created both the phrase Inbox Zero and its ideology. He was a writer who created the blog 43 Folders, which aimed to help readers find time to do their best creative work. Spending less time and attention on email management was one way to do more creative work.
Once his Inbox Zero message grew more popular, Merlin Mann created an Inbox Zero series of articles.
At the core of the Inbox Zero philosophy are these three key ideas:
- Some messages are more important than others
- Your time is extremely valuable and very limited
- Less is more when sending emails
- Ditch the guilt associated with responding/not responding
Additionally, the Inbox Zero methodology hinges on three key email inbox principles:
- Respond immediately to the message that can be replied to in two minutes or under;
- Choose to either delegate, defer, respond, do or delete when looking through your emails.
- Don’t keep your inbox open for most of your day to avoid being distracted.
Inbox Zero: To Do Or Not To Do?
Inbox Zero isn’t for everyone. So how can you decide whether the inbox zero approach ir right for you?
Why NOT To Use The Inbox Zero Approach
An efficient inbox management system can mean more time to focus on more important work, more free time, and time with family. However, some individuals argue that the principles of the Inbox Zero formula only look good on paper.
Depending on the amount and type of emails you receive regularly, Inbox Zero might not work for you. For instance, you might receive numerous priority emails every day that you need to respond to, meaning that you don’t have the time to sort and organize your inbox daily.
In other words, actually achieving Inbox Zero might only be possible for you once or twice a week.
Similarly, if you create a filing structure in terms of filters and archives for your emails (a key aspect of Inbox Zero), you’re required to remember what you’ve made. But, not everyone can remember these structures.
If you can’t, you’ll end up using the email search function to find emails. So, if you need to use the search function to find your emails, why should you bother sorting through and archiving them?
Lastly, the Inbox Zero approach can be a time-consuming process, especially in the beginning. You may end up spending a lot more time deleting, deferring, and delegating rather than achieving something more productive with your day.
You may also become obsessed with the number of filters, folders, and apps you can use to manage the Inbox Zero process. So obsessed that you might miss a deadline or put off doing something important.
Why Strive For Achieving Inbox Zero
Alternatively, many people love Inbox Zero since it gives them a sense of accomplishment when they decide which messages are important and clear out all the clutter. Dealing with all the unread emails and emptying the inbox can provide you with an improved sense of productivity as you now know that you’re free to get on with more important matters.
And as you get used to the system, you also get better at unsubscribing, sorting, labeling, and archiving. If you love technology for managing emails, the Inbox Zero process also allows you to use apps like Sortd.
This app can help you create a list of columns like ‘To Do’, ‘Needs Follow Up’, and ‘To Read’. In this way, you can view and transform your inbox into a more manageable list.
Whichever side you fall on, you should still choose the parts of the Inbox Zero formula that can work for you.
Now let’s look at the three steps necessary to achieve Inbox Zero.
Three Steps To Achieve Inbox Zero
So how can you achieve an empty inbox? Follow these steps.
Step 1: Initially Assess The Contents Of Your Inbox
Before you can take control of your inbox, you need to get a general understanding of what types of emails you regularly receive.
To determine this information, start by looking at the sender details, subject lines, and, if necessary, the date of receipt. Then ask yourself some questions to determine your typical email habits:
What types of emails do you receive regularly?
Are these newsletters or junk mail? Emails from family, friends, or work? Messages from new connections or chain letters? Your response to this question is essential, as you might prioritize incoming emails from new contacts, work, family, and friends, while choosing to archive or read newsletters later.
Can you gauge the content of the emails from the subject lines?
Knowing the email contents from the subject lines allows you to sort your email into lists immediately without opening them.
For instance, if you see a newsletter from an important business blogger, you could automatically move that into a ‘Read Later’ folder. When the time is right, you can go back through all your ‘Read Later’ materials.
On the other hand, a subject line with the word ‘Hello’ coupled with a family member’s email address suggests that this is an important email, but maybe not one you can immediately respond to. Rather than replying to the email straight away, you could route it to a folder to respond to after working hours.
What are the dates of the emails?
We’ve all been guilty of leaving emails in our inbox as ‘unread’ for lengthy periods of time. When you first start the Inbox Zero process, you’ll need to check whether older emails are still relevant.
You can also determine whether any of these emails come in on a particular day of the week. If they do and you still want to keep these emails, create a filter that puts them into a separate folder for you to read later.
Who emails you regularly?
If you regularly get emails from people/companies that aren’t relevant, unsubscribe or block them. This will help you get rid of anything that you don’t need to read through. You can also create automatic filters for work and personal emails, allowing you to batch process them at a later point.
Be Brutal When Unsubscribing
Once you’re aware of your inbox’s contents, your next step should be to get rid of as many unnecessary emails as possible. These could include:
Subscriptions and Newsletters
You probably have a lot of email subscriptions to various brands and newsletters. But do you really need them or are they just cluttering up your inbox? Ask yourself these questions:
- How often does this type of email get opened? If a newsletter makes up most of your ‘unread’ items, it is time to unsubscribe from their list and delete the relevant emails.
- If you do open a newsletter, do you read through its contents fully? While it might seem strict, you should only keep a newsletter in your inbox if it adds value to your life. If it doesn’t, unsubscribe.
- Once you read the newsletter, how are the contents used? In other words, are the contents of your subscriptions and newsletters making a real difference in your life? Are they helping you work more effectively or achieve a particular goal? If not, you should probably unsubscribe.
It’s essential, to be honest with yourself when answering these questions. Do you think you’ll make use of an offer in a newsletter? Are you still interested in regular updates from a particular brand? No? Then, delete!
Alerts From Social Media
These emails include all those received from social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and many more. They might include whether someone has commented on your post or could tell you when someone you follow has posted something new.
Social media provides enough distractions as it is. You don’t need to be distracted even more through email alerts. Reduce or totally eliminate these email alerts by going into your social accounts’ settings section. Once there, turn off email alerts.
You can delete most spam/junk emails without opening them. If you continually receive emails from some senders, report them as spam before deleting the email. This way you’ll prevent these types of emails from appearing in your inbox again.
Keep It Simple When Organizing Your Inbox
The organization of your inbox is critical, but you can do it without overcomplicating matters. Use these three solutions to organize your inbox in a simple, yet effective manner:
Use The Principles Of Delete, Delegate, Respond, Defer and Do As A Starting Point
- Delete: Get rid of any emails you don’t need. Archive emails you’ve read but still want to refer to later.
- Delegate: If you have other team members or a team assistant better placed to answer an email for you, delegate the response to them. Then, set a reminder for yourself to follow up at a later date. In this way, you can check that the email received a response.
- Respond: Some emails might only take two minutes or under to respond to. Reply to them immediately so that you can move them into your archive.
- Defer: Require more time to read or reply to a particular email? Mark it as something to do for later.
- Do: If you can reply to an email quickly, do it. If it’s an invite for a meeting, accept it. Need to set a task on your to-do list? Set it as soon as you can.
Create Folders Or Labels
After using the above principles to sort through your inbox daily, you can use labels and create folders to keep your messages organized. For instance, if there are emails that you need to respond to soon, but don’t have the time now, put them in a folder called ‘Needs Response Soon.’ Follow this action with tasks on your to-do list that you can tick off once all of these emails are dealt with.
For emails, you need to respond to later, send a short message to the sender thanking them for their email and saying that you will get back to them in a [x] number of days. Then, put these emails in a folder called ‘In Progress’. Remember to also create a task on your to-do list for each email in this folder.
Lastly, any email that requires no response can be read and then archived or immediately deleted.
Automate With Apps
In a bit, we’ll go through a selection of our top email apps to make your inbox more efficient. But, for now, we’ll go through some of our favorite browser add-ons or standalone apps that can also make Inbox Zero more achievable:
- Inbox When Ready: This is a Chrome Extension that is an alternative to the Inbox Pause app. By clicking the ‘hide inbox’ button, you can hide your inbox entirely after installing the extension. It means that you can deal with replying to emails without being bombarded by new items in your inbox. Furthermore, this app can help you schedule an inbox lockout to check your emails only at certain times of the day.
- Email On Deck: This service can provide you with a free temporary email address. This email address is useful when needing to ‘confirm your email address without being put on a promotional newsletter list.
- Gorgias Templates: If you find yourself writing the same response to multiple recipients, template that response. Once you install this app, you can also share any templates with the rest of your team. In this way, everyone can work more efficiently when it comes to email.
- Calendly: Avoid back-and-forth emails to schedule meetings. Use Calendly to help you schedule them. All you need to do is let the app know your availability during the week. Then, if an individual asks for a meeting with you, share the Calendly link with them. This individual can then pick a suitable time within your calendar.
Develop A Future-Proof Process For An Efficient Email System
Choose To Deal With Your Emails In Batches During The Day
One of the most inefficient ways of working is to enable email notifications for every message that comes through. It means that your mind is forced to jump between multiple activities rather than focusing on one task.
Instead, remain productive by choosing set times during the day to check your email. This system could include early morning, after lunch, and early evening. Once you select these times, stick to this schedule so you’re not checking your inbox continually.
If you don’t want to miss any urgent emails, you can create custom notifications that will only alert you to these types of messages.
Incorporate Filters Into Your Inbox for Incoming Emails
You can use filters to automatically move, delete, or archive individual emails as soon as they enter your inbox. For example, you might choose to add a star to all incoming emails from your parents’ email addresses.
Choose a new filter name like ‘Family’. Then, state that this filter need applies when there are any emails from your parents’ email address. Finally, detail the action you want to be performed if the filter finds any of these incoming emails. In this example, the action would be to star all these types of emails. Additionally, you could also use a similar process to move incoming items to a new folder or spam.
Only ‘Touch It Once’ When Handling Emails
Imagine a situation where you have a wide variety of incoming emails. The first one requires a research-based response, the other is a meeting request, and the final one can be answered in less than two minutes.
As per the Delete, Delegate, Respond, Defer and Do method we discussed earlier, you could respond immediately to the one that needs a quick reply. You could also choose to accept the meeting request immediately. However, you may need additional time to answer the research-based question.
If you follow the Inbox Zero process, you would send a quick reply to the recipient asking for more time. Then, you would move into a folder to be responded to later.
What you shouldn’t do is not file it away and then re-read and re-consider your response many times during that day. Touching the same email multiple times without actually replying to the email wastes your time and energy.
Inbox Zero: Our Top 3 Email Apps
Automating email tasks with an email management system makes it easier to achieve that Inbox Zero feeling. Here are three email applications to make you more efficient:
The Microsoft Outlook email service is part of a suite of programs that keep you efficient, which are compatible on all desktop and mobile devices. The Microsoft Office 365 package includes Outlook Calendar to schedule all of your appointments and share event reminders through the Shared Calendar system. It also offers Microsoft Teams to help you message individuals immediately, share files instantly, and have calls.
You can also speed up your day with Microsoft Outlook keyboard shortcuts. For instance, you can use CTRL + Shift + A to schedule a new appointment, while ALT + S to send a message.
As well as filtering messages and setting up folders, you can also view an Outlook inbox in the way you want. For example, you can color-code meetings with your manager in red and leave all other meetings in green.
Outlook also makes it easier to save parts of similar emails, so it becomes part of Outlook’s auto text system. You can start by highlighting the text you would like to keep. Then, click the Insert tab. Next, choose ‘Quick Parts’ and finally ‘Save selection to Quick Part Gallery’. Remember to give it an easy name to refer back to these emails when you need them.
If you’re looking for a more versatile email app, you can’t go wrong with Gmail. Like Microsoft Outlook, GSuite also offers a cloud-based system of programs like Google Docs, Slides, and many more. Gmail also allows you to view multiple email accounts at the same time, allowing you to check your personal and business emails at the same time, anywhere.
You can also use filters, stars, and folders, so you will never forget who you need to respond to next. But the most valuable feature of Gmail is that it can be linked with other add-ons or integrations. These add-ons could include Batched Inbox, which allows you to set times during the day that you want to check incoming emails. It can also help you ‘hide’ emails in a folder until those set times.
Another add-on app for Gmail is Boomerang, which you can use to prepare an email in advance and then schedule it to send later. This app also allows you to set automatic reminders for a particular email if you don’t hear back from a recipient.
If you take advantage of the paid version of Boomerang, you can also benefit from one of its other features called Respondable. This is an AI feature that can predict whether your response is likely to get a reply back using a scoring system. If your score is not good, it can help you rewrite the email for better results.
Use this mobile app if you need to collate all emails from other inboxes in one place. Edison Mail also comes with its smart assistant that puts useful emails into categories so you can find them easily.
For instance, if you’re traveling soon, the smart assistant sends you smart notifications on any flight changes, including delays and cancellations. If you have a package due to be delivered, it will send you alerts about the delivery.
Are you looking to unsubscribe from a newsletter automatically? Edison Mail can suggest potential mailing lists to unsubscribe from, and you can unsubscribe in just one touch.
This app takes security seriously as it comes with AI-security features, including an ability to verify senders. This feature can help protect you from phishing scams. You can also make it difficult for hackers to access your emails by using Face or Touch ID with this app.
Follow the Inbox Zero process to maintain control of your inbox every day. Use labels, filters, and folders to make your email process more efficient manually. If you enjoy technology, you can also use apps to make it quicker to organize your emails.
Remember that no productivity practice is perfect. In time, the Inbox Zero formula can make it easier to spend less time worrying about your inbox and more time on achieving bigger goals.
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to my blogroll.
Email management is not as easy as the word says. It involves a lot of time to manage it effectively. However, there’s one easy way to manage it – Outsource. As recommended by the 4-hour work week, I have outsourced the Email management task of mine with Habiliss virtual assistant services.
Hi, Mike! Great article. I love it that i can always find great tips on inbox management here.
I’ve found that switching to a dedicated task management platform really decreased the number of emails I get.
What a great post. I am only new to blogging and it has me in a tail spin. My old time management is out and I still don’t have a new structure.
I agree our inbox can be very overwhelming, however I am going to take some of this away with me and give myself a week to get my email up and running efficiently.
Thanks for this break up of work related issues.
oooh, that definitely looks useful.
Greetings, AE Productivity Wizards!
I’d like to ask you a question about email that may be more relevant to those of us forced to work in MSWindows – why email folders at all? I save email files within my (fairly organized) Windows folder hierarchy, not separate email folders in Outlook. This way I only have to remember the topic, not whether the info was in an email, a PDF, etc, or heaven forbid, whether it was in a PDF attached to an email. But I’ve NEVER found anyone else who manages emails this way. This seems to fall into the part of GTD that deals with management of reference materials, and it doesn’t make sense to have parallel filing systems…
Maybe one day I’ll be able to make the jump to a tag- based system, but I’m a child of the eighties with the desktop and file folder metaphors etched into my brain. That, and over ten years of business files held captive by Windows…
Love your blogs, and the thinking behind them. Thanks for your help.
Pls send me the inbox zero toolkits.
Thank you very much!