If you find yourself plagued by an incessant stream of emails every day, inbox zero is a popular email philosophy that could be just what you need to retain your professional sanity.
I’ve been practicing inbox zero for nearly 10 years. As someone who has anxiety, I’ve found it incredibly helpful for keeping my stress low and my focus high during workdays.
In this post, I’ll be discussing what inbox zero is, and some of my personal tips to help you hit it every day.
What is inbox zero?
The term “inbox zero” was coined by productivity guru Merlin Mann on his website 43folders.com.
Inbox zero is a method of achieving a clean, empty email inbox… and keeping it that way. Mann is sort of like the Marie Kondo of email, but before Marie Kondo had taken the home organization world by storm.
According to Mann:
“[T]he problem of email overload is taking a toll on all our time, productivity, and sanity, mainly because most of us lack a cohesive system for processing our messages and converting them into appropriate actions as quickly as possible.”
By having a reliable system for organizing and taking action on your emails, you can keep your inbox empty, keep your stress levels lower, and be more productive overall.
Of course, if you currently have an inbox overflowing with emails, getting to that initial phase of inbox zero can seem daunting. So, first, we’ll discuss some steps you can take to clear out your inbox and start getting it organized.
How do I get to inbox zero?
A few helpful inbox zero tips straight from Mann’s website can help you get started. Here’s what he suggests:
1. Delete emails that are more than a week old. If you haven’t responded to them by now, you may as well clear them out of your inbox. Bulk deleting emails is one of the easiest ways to hit inbox zero.
2. Use templates. Most emails we deal with in our professional lives are somewhat similar. Therefore, you can use email templates to save time and prevent emails from piling up in your inbox. Gmail has a handy “Templates” feature that you can turn on in the “Advanced” tab under “Settings” that will make this easier.
3. Don’t recreate the wheel. If someone emails you asking for information about a particular topic or process, feel free to send them a link to an existing resource on the subject, rather than explaining it to them in your own words. Internal company documents likely exist for many of these scenarios, too.
The way Mann sees it, even the most over-encumbered email inbox can be completely cleaned out in no more than 20 minutes.
For those who scoff at the idea, Mann points out:
“The more email you have been neglecting in your inbox, the more drastic and ruthless your processing must be.”
If you have months of backed up emails in your inbox, you may as well just delete them. If something is really important, people will usually follow up, anyway. This alone can clean up your inbox in a matter of minutes.
In terms of my own favorite tips for hitting inbox zero, I follow those from Mann above, but I also have a few additional strategies I employ to keep my inbox(s) at zero.
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My personal tips for reaching inbox zero
I’ve been managing not just one but, usually, three professional email inboxes every weekday for a little under 10 years. It was rough going when I started my marketing job but, once I figured out how to make inbox zero work for me, I never had a problem with my email load again.
Here are some of my personal favorite tips that have taken my inbox zero practice to the next level.
Inbox zero tip #1: Use the 2-minute rule
When used in conjunction with inbox zero, the 2-minute rule is a powerful practice for keeping your inbox organized and empty.
The 2-minute rule was created by David Allen, whose popular book Getting Things Done is another staple favorite with working professionals the world over.
The 2-minute rule essentially says this: If you can get a task done right now, in two minutes or less, do it. If not, have a scheduled time to take care of it later.
The way I use this with inbox zero is to go through all of the non-junk mail or newsletter subscription emails I have and, if I can quickly answer an email in less than two minutes, I do it. If not, I have an hour of time scheduled in the day to solely focus on responding to emails that require more thought.
Inbox zero tip #2: Pause your inbox
I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to concentrate on clearing out my inbox when I have new emails constantly popping onto my screen. To prevent these new distractions, I started using inbox-pausing browser extensions and software.
Inbox zero tip #3: Archive everything
One of Mann’s tips that I just can’t bring myself to follow is to delete old emails.
Working in marketing, you never know when an old email will suddenly become relevant again, or when you might need to look up an old contact’s information.
I’m able to retain all my emails while still hitting inbox zero, though, by simply using the “Archive” feature built into most modern email clients. This way, my inbox stays clean, but I haven’t actually lost any of the old emails, should I need to look one of them up later.
In fact, the first thing I do when I open my email each day is to archive everything that clearly isn’t actionable for me. This means archiving email newsletters, social media notifications, spammy PR pitches, etc. I’ll talk a bit more about my process with this in the next section of this post.
Inbox zero tip #4: Only check your email once a day
Yes. Once a day. No more, no less.
The problem with checking your email multiple times a day is that – and you can be sure – they will keep coming.
Every time you check your inbox, there will be another email there. So, naturally, each time you check your inbox, you’ll be tempted to take the time to respond to your emails. This will distract you from your other work, and you’ll make little progress on your other projects.
Stop doing this! For the love of god, you’ll only drive yourself crazy.
Instead, I find it most helpful to check my email once a day, usually in the morning just before lunch. This way, I’m able to respond to all of the emails that came in after lunch the previous day, as well as earlier that morning.
I’ve rarely (if ever, now that I think about it) encountered a situation where anyone has needed a response to an email in less than 24 hours. And, I would argue, if they do need a quicker response, they shouldn’t be contacting you by email in the first place. A phone call or direct message would be much more appropriate in that case.
Once you’ve hit inbox zero for the day, you’re done! Unpause your inbox and exit out of it (or, if you can’t resist, keep your inbox paused until you log on the next day) and move on with your work.
How do I keep my inbox empty?
So, let’s say you’ve done the hard part: you archived all of your emails, responded to the actionable ones, and now you have a clean, empty inbox. Congratulations! You’ve reached inbox zero!
Of course, that squeaky clean feeling will be short-lived if you let yourself fall back into your old, cluttered ways. The key to keeping a consistent inbox zero practice going is to maintain a regularly empty inbox.
As someone who’s been able to hit inbox zero every working day for nearly a decade, I want to share with you how I’ve been able to do this.
The exact steps I take to hit inbox zero every day:
1. Login to your email client. If your inbox is still paused from the day before, unpause it.
2. Select all the emails in your inbox. Most email clients allow you to do this by clicking a checkbox at the top of the screen. Gmail’s looks like this:
3. Now that all your emails are selected, scroll down the list and deselect any emails that actually matter. (This is handy if you find you get more extraneous emails than actionable emails like me, but if most of your emails tend to be actionable, then you could simply go through and select only the unimportant ones.)
4. Archive all the selected emails. This will leave only the important emails in your inbox. For me, this step usually automatically eliminates at least 50% of my emails without me having to click into all of them.
5. Go through the remaining, important emails, applying the 2-minute rule as you go. For anything that is going to take you longer than 2-minutes to address, leave it in your inbox, and move on to the next email. Archive each email after you respond to it.
6. After you’ve dealt with all the easy, 2-minute emails, go back to the remaining emails that will take longer to address. Alot yourself no more than one hour of time to get through the rest of your emails. Archive each email as you respond to it.
7. Now you’ve reached inbox zero! Do not open your email the rest of the day. Close out of it and move on with your work.
This is the process I go through to hit inbox zero every day, and it’s worked for me for many years.
Do you have a similar inbox zero process? Is there anything that you find especially hard about hitting inbox zero? Tell me in the comments below!