Inbox Zero is a term coined by Merlin Mann to describe the strategy of handling email by always trying to keep your inbox empty. For many of us, Inbox Zero isn’t just a goal, it is a mentality that helps us to stay focused on what needs to get done.
Think about the way you handle “real” mail that is delivered by the Postal Service. The first thing you do is empty your mailbox. Then you sort that mail into: junk which is thrown away, items which can be filed for safekeeping, and perhaps a more immediate pile which acts as your To-Do list.
Email should be treated similarly and there are tools which make this easy to accomplish. You should never have an inbox with hundreds of unsorted items just sitting there. Inbox Zero is the best way to quickly be more productive and stay on task without losing anything you need.
Tips for Getting Started
Before attempting to go for an Inbox Zero system, it is really important to configure your mail client (GMail, Outlook, etc.) to keep yourself organized. The goal is for your inbox to only contain those To-Do list items, while filtering out spam and giving yourself folders in which to archive mail for long-term storage. Once you have completed those To-Do list items, they will be archived and you will have an empty inbox.
I am a GMail user so many of my suggestions will use their terminology, but the principles for proper organization should be universal.
- Labels: Start by creating labels (folders) for the different aspects of your life that all flow into your inbox. Separate personal from professional content and then make sub-folders to stay organized by topic. For example, you may have a label for all “Business”, under which there are folders for each client or project. Similarly, your “Personal” category could have sub folders for “Family”, “Friends”, and “Finance”.
- Lots of Labels: Take advantage of the ability to have more than one label on a given item. An invoice from a client can be labelled “Business>Client XYZ” and also “Finance”. Unlike physical mail, and email can sit in more than one folder at a time without being copied. This cuts down on the storage capacity required, while remaining easy to sort.
- Color Code: Labels can be customized with colors to make it much easier to tell what an email is just at a quick glance. Personalize your system to be intuitive for you.
- Embrace Search: Remember that the goal of labeling and archiving is to make it easy to find what you are looking for later. Whatever your system is, make sure you use terms and sorting methods that will make sense to you later. This is a deeply personal process that should suit the way your mind works.
- Plan to Archive Everything: Junk is fine to delete, but if an email is a correspondence, receipt, or anything you might ever want to reference, go ahead and click archive. GMail offers a huge amount of storage for free, so for most people there is no reason not to save all “real” mail that isn’t spam.
- Send + Archive: Go to the “General” tab of GMail’s settings and activate “Send and Archive”. This will add a button to the composition screen allowing you to send your email, while archiving the thread. This saves you a click on the inbox and helps to keep the inbox clean. If the recipient replies, the thread with the unread message will appear in the inbox again.
- Teach the Spam Filter: GMail is really good at learning what you consider spam if you declare spam as such using the “Report Spam” button. Most GMail users notice that they get very little, if any spam through to their inbox after they get going with it. Having said that, it is a good idea to check the spam “Spam” folder weekly to make sure it has not incorrectly flagged something as spam which should have gone to the inbox.
Once your filing structure and settings are ready, start to move over your existing mail. You can do that by drag and drop, or by using the automation described in the next section.
So you have a structure in place to your email, that’s good. If you really want to make the most of that system, then it is time to add some automation. Rather than dragging and dropping labels each time you see a new message, take advantage of GMail’s filter tool to do it for you.
Filters can sort mail into labels based on:
- Recipient (Especially useful for people with multiple accounts flowing into one GMail inbox)
Example: separating your @gmail.com mail from your professional account.
Example: Automatically applying the “Business>Client XYZ” label anytime an incoming message is from an email account ending in “@clientxyz.com”
Example. Mark anything with words such as “Receipt” or “Shipping” to the “Finance” label to track anything related to money.
There are also dozens of other potential uses for filters. While you can always apply or remove labels manually, taking advantage of the automation from filters saves you time and makes identifying what is in your inbox much easier. This is especially true when viewing your inbox on mobile, where all actions take a little bit more effort than on desktop.
Remember! When creating a filter, there is a checkbox next to the “Create Filter” confirmation button which offers to “Also apply filter to # matching conversations.” This will retroactively apply that filter to all existing mail which fits the expressed criteria. Using this tool will let you match thousands of existing emails to your new system.
Once your system is running, incoming mail should be mostly labeled automatically and spam filtered out. Now you can quickly make sense of what you have to tackle. As you read each email, you should conclude by taking some action:
- Reply: Craft your response then press “Send + Archive”.
- Archive: No need to reply, but saving it for possible future reference.
- Report Spam: Moves the message to the “Spam” folder while teaching Google that you consider than sender or content to be junk.
- Delete: Permanently get rid of the email
Any of those steps clear the email from your inbox. The only time you would take no action is if that item is considered something “To-Do” which you can’t or won’t be doing at that moment, and by keeping it in the inbox it remains on your To-Do list. With this approach, you can stay organized and work much more efficiently.