Reclaim Your Life With Inbox Zero

Gmail Zero

How many emails are in your Inbox? 10? 100? 1000? Do I hear 10,000?

It’s no wonder things get lost in there– party invitations, meeting times, family photos, notes from friends. It happens.

But it doesn’t have to anymore. Really.

Long gone are the days when my email account had a 6MB limit that forced me to address all messages quickly and delete them so there was room for more. Now, I have unlimited storage and I can keep them all forever… Yay?!?

But not in my inbox. They arrive. They generate a plan. They exit.

You don’t believe me? The screenshot of my inbox is at the top of this page.

Sure, you say. Nice try. We all have a separate email account for spam. I could have just emptied it and still have an overflowing inbox in my real email. This is actually my true business account, but I do have a separate one for friends and family.

Here you go. Yes, it’s Yahoo. Don’t judge.

Yahoo ZeroFor the past few months, this has been at zero too.

Phone Inbox ZeroAnd all my accounts are linked on my phone.

For reals.

How is this possible?

Merlin Mann coined the term Inbox Zero with a specific process for dealing with emails, but to me this just seemed like having multiple inboxes so I tweaked it a bit.

The process took a while to fine-tune, but now it’s actually quicker and easier to keep my inbox at zero than to let it build up. And much less stressful.

I don’t have to look at a huge hot mess of guilt and procrastination every time I log in anymore. Nothing gets lost or buried. It’s amazing and liberating and can work for you too!

Step 1: Start Fresh.

I don’t mean you should just open a new email account or delete all your emails and say, “Oh well. I hope there wasn’t anything important in there.” Although that might not be such a bad idea…

Instead, put them in a folder called Old Inbox, Shoved In the Back of the Closet, In Denial, or something else accurately descriptive.

Now you can tackle the new arrivals.

Step 2: Unsubscribe and Delete.

Different email services have different settings, and your inbox might look different on your phone than it does on your laptop. Try to make your initial review every day in a way that lets you see the first line of content without having to open the email. This will save you time and clicks.

SpamWhen you see a new email that is clearly spam, delete it. Don’t even open it first.

If you keep getting spam from the same sender, block the address.

If you get an email from Groupon or your favorite store or service that you actually subscribed to but don’t want to see every day, open it and click the link to unsubscribe, then delete the email. This shouldn’t delete your account, but it will halt your inbox clutter. If you want to check out sales or specials or try to find the end of the internet when you have time to kill, you can always go directly to their website.

Another option is Unroll.me, a free service that helps clean out your inbox. It searches your account for emails that seem to be subscriptions and gives you the option to

  • Keep receiving individual emails
  • Consolidate these notices into periodic summaries
  • Unsubscribe

You’ll be amazed at the amount of time this will save, and you’ll be even more amazed at the money you’ll save. It’s all essentially advertising, and advertising works!

So stop impulse buying things you don’t really want or need by removing the advertising triggers and banishing their emails. Finding out about a 30% off sale or BOGO deal isn’t helpful if you don’t need what they’re offering. When you need something, make a shopping list and stick to it. See my special offer at the end of the post for more decluttering tips.

Step 3: Just Do It.

When you see an email with an invitation or a request you can address in less than five minutes, just do it.

I keep my Google calendar permanently pinned to a browser tab right next to my email tab, so it’s simple to check my schedule.

Choose Yes for Your PrioritiesIf you’re invited to an event that excites you and you’re free on that day and time, then commit. Send a quick Yes RSVP and put the necessary details on your calendar.

File the message in a Short-Term Save folder that you can reference if needed. You can empty this folder periodically or just let obsolete messages accumulate there indefinitely. At least they’re no longer stealing your attention by hanging out in your inbox.

Archiving messages without filing them first is another option that’s easier initially but can be harder to search.

If you receive an invitation that does not excite you and you aren’t obligated to attend, then RSVP No and archive or file the message. Life is short, so choose your priorities wisely. Don’t leave yourself feeling guilty and your host in limbo by letting the message sit and stagnate. Make your choice so you can both move on.

When you receive requests for action or information that you can complete quickly, respond immediately then delete, file, or archive the request. If they can or should be delegated, forward them now.

Keep your messages short and sweet and make your subject lines relevant and clear.

Step 4: Procrastinate Prioritize.

When you receive an email that will take more time to properly address than you have at the moment, put the task on your To Do List (which of course you prioritize each night so you know where to focus the next day).

File the email in an appropriate and clearly labeled folder such as Family, Work, Library Fan Club, Project X, Bucket List, Vacation, etc. Make as many folders as you need to stay organized and get these emails OUT of your inbox.

Don’t let unimportant requests take priority over more important and urgent matters just because they’ve arrived more recently, and don’t be afraid to say no.

Be sure to put tackling your Old Inbox folder on your To Do List also. Spend 10-15 minutes per day deleting, addressing, and filing these old emails, and you’ll be done before you know it. You won’t believe how much of our email is purely inconsequential clutter.

Step 5: Enjoy Your Freedom.

Congratulations! You did it!

Your inbox is empty and your anxiety over forgetting something important is gone. You’re now the responsible one in your group of friends. You’re the one who’s on the ball.

As rewarding as it is to see an empty inbox, remember that email exists for your convenience, not the other way around.

The real goal of Inbox Zero is to redirect your time and attention back to your real life.

Turn off noisy alerts and pop-ups. There’s no need to check your inbox on your phone every five seconds. Designate a few minutes one to three times a day to sit down and focus. Touch each message only once, address it, delete or file it, and move on.

You can do it!

Comment below to share your secrets for reclaiming your time and attention. 

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Comments 6

  1. I am ashamed that my personal email box has almost 2k unread messages and I don’t know if I’ve seen an empty inbox since it was created 10 years ago. I can see how an empty email box can declutter your life though. I will start uncluttering my blog email box!

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  2. Great article! I’ve maintained inbox zero or near zero for many years and it has certainly made a difference in my overall mood when it comes to email. Anything in my inbox is something I need to deal with so I try to clean it out as much as possible. Lately I’ve been using unrollme to roll up all my blog subscriptions into an easy to read newsletter format. It also makes it easy to unsubscribe from all sorts of things.

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  3. I like this. I feel as if my main problem with clutter is my tendency to delay making decisions. If I had to delete or file an email the first time I saw it, it would be good practice for the decision muscle.

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      Clearwing, you can even start with ‘archive’. If you remember something a few days later and wish you’d kept it, you can find it again. But odds are that it’ll never cross your mind. Good luck!

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