7 Ways to Get to Inbox Zero


inbox zeroMy email inbox has been threatening my very existence as of late. It’s been a tireless harpy that calls me in with it’s siren songs and then sucks the most productive hours of my day into the black hole of inbox doom.

Seem dramatic? Well having a cluttered email inbox is no laughing matter my friend – it’s actually one of the biggest time sucks in the world! And with the number of emails I get per day skyrocketing past 100 (not including spam!) I knew it was time to optimalize my email inbox.

Below are the 7 things I did to reach inbox zero and now that I’ve reached it my productivity has sky rocketed, the sun is shining and I don’t want to chuck my computer at the door every time I open my inbox.

  1. Use Gmail. Thankfully, Google’s email client still blocks a good chunk of the spam I receive on a daily basis from trolls who inhabit the Internet’s under belly. I’ve found Gmail the best email client to use because of it’s the simple interface and the fact that I can simply switch between different email handles all from one location. No desktop software to haggle with and very little fuss, Gmail is the first step on your journey to inbox zero.
  2. Filter everything. Filter out everything that’s repetitive and non-essential. That means messages from Twitter that let you know when @XXXCheeseburger is following you and especially those pesky and addicting emails that tell you when a friend has posted a link to pictures of LOLcats on your wall. This stuff will suck your time away fast and ensure that you NEVER reach inbox zero. Either ‘turn off’ the option for non-essential sites to email you notifications or create a filter in Gmail (which you can learn how to do here).
  3. Unsubscribe from only the most essential email newsletters. You know how 99% of the sites on the internet are garbage? 99% of newsletter are as well. It’s up to you to judge what email subscriptions add real value to your life – but chances are that most subscriptions don’t. There are probably 5 email newsletters I actually like getting – (one of them is Startup Digest). The rest I unsubscribe to as they come in – sometimes I don’t know how I was subscribed in the first place but it doesn’t matter – unless they provide “holy cow” value they’re unsubscribed to.
  4. Start from the bottom and go up. Now that you’ve done the above and filtered out most emails that aren’t essential it’s time to start attacking your inbox. Don’t cherry pick the most interesting emails – no matter how “urgent” some may seem – this will only reward your bad inbox behavior. Force yourself to start from the bottom when opening and dealing with emails and go up. Once you’ve trained yourself in this email management tactic you’ll find the steps below will fall right into place.
  5. Use the open-once rule. Do not touch an email more than once – I don’t care how bad you want to leave it sitting there or open it a few times to “mull” it over. Think of it like a mailbox. You don’t open your mail – then when you realize you don’t know what to do with it – set it back in the mailbox to let it veg for a while. Instead force yourself to make a decision right there – what “bin” does this email go in. Is it trash? Is it for someone else to do? Is it something only you can act on?
  6. Use the no-email-gets-left-behind rule: If you think about it there is ALWAYS  a next action for each and every email that hits your inbox. Even if you sit there stumped for a few minutes – don’t leave that open email until you decide what the next act is and do it. This will mean you either: file your email, trash it, take the pertinent information and assign it in a to-do list, make a note of it or forward it on to someone else (delegation – my favorite!). For more information on this approach read Getting Things Done a book that will change the way you organize your inbox and your life.
  7. Check it Twice a Day. Twice a day is the maximum amount you should open up your email inbox (even less if you can swing it) and check emails. I check my email at roughly 10am and then again at 6pm. When I follow my above rules this means the last check of the day is usually a cake walk, though the first can be gruesome. The more you religiously use these email guidelines, the easier it will be to breeze through your inbox during your two “check points” and move on to the more profitable and productive parts of your day.

Bonus ‘Inbox Zero’ Tip:

Get at least one of your major goals for the day done before you answer email in the morning. This will help you train yourself to get out of the habit of running to your inbox first thing (which is just silly and distracting) and it will increase productivity by leaps and bounds.

If you don’t know how to execute on goals during your day listen to the tip I picked up from Jeff Slobotski and set only 3 main goals per day. At first, this seems crazy, but if you take your to-do list and figure out what is the absolute most essential – then assign those top 3 items to get done by the days end – you’ll notice a huge difference in the way you work and the productivity you experience.

Bonus, Bonus Tip

Hire a virtual assistant, then train them for a week on your email inbox protocol. This can be sharing a screen with your VA each day while you go through your inbox or just helping them go through your inbox and judge what merits a response and what can be immediately assigned to a to-do list or delegated to another person. This way you can have your virtual assistant learn how you’d empty your inbox and then they can do it for you – alerting you of only the most pertinent emails that need your addressing and dealing with all the others without you having to lose an hour a day to fight the empty inbox war.

Are there other inbox tips I missed? Feel free to add on in the comments below or just say hi, I love to hear from you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.e.mcwilliams Scott McWilliams


    What do you do when a newsletter has a good tip in it? I end up leaving them in the inbox because I want to keep the tip where I’ll remember it. This really doesn’t work, of course.

  • http://www.jessilicious.com Jess Webb

    Hi Maren! :)

    Wow – these are awesome tips! Email is something I have been really struggling with, and now I feel like I can finally get a handle on it. 😉

    My challenge is that I use my email throughout the day to refer back to older emails for details I need for a project, or to send emails if there’s one I need to send. Then I inevitably see the new emails that have come in and…… that’s it, my resolution to check email twice daily has been forgotten and I’m sucked into email land. lol! Any tips on how to avoid that??

  • http://www.megabizflakes.com samuel

    Awesome tips Kate. I’ve being looking for a way to get rid of unwanted emails in my box. I was thinking maybe I should assign a day for cleaning all the mess! :) Thanks so much for sharing this awesome tips. Rock on!

  • http://thetrailblazinglife.com Collin Vine

    Gmail Priority Inbox! It’s gold and sorts your emails for you. And it leaves you with an encouraging message (Woohoo! You’ve read all the important messages in your inbox.) once you reach priority inbox zero.

    This kind of goes against your #4 point about starting from the bottom but I promise, it’s worth it 😉

  • http://www.JosephBothwell.com Joseph

    http://www.josephbothwell.com/2010/11/11/how-to-empty-your-inbox-and-keep-it-empty/ I suggest the four D’s. They work wonders for your inbox!

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    Thanks Joseph :)

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    Haha – I don’t use it because of #4! If I start prioritizing i’ll never empty my inbox totally!

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    Daily is the best – it gives you a certain freedom to have a totally clean inbox :)

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    I’d save them in files outside of your inbox – then you can refer them without “tempting” yourself to check your email or get sucked in. So download the emails – put them in files on your desktop – or Basecamp. In reality you shouldn’t have any material to refer to in your inbox – it should always be outside of it held in a filing place or reference place – because think of it – you wouldn’t leave your bills in the mailbox to go back to days later to refer to. You’d take them inside and put them in the proper place :)

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    Have a reference file – either offline or in basecamp or evernote.. that’s what I do :) tips can be either actionable or reference based and then they’re easy to file.

  • http://twitter.com/bluepop13 Eric

    Great advice Maren.

    I actually am very guilty of a lot of this and just a few days ago I actually made the decision to use Thunderbird instead of doing web mail… I have too many email accounts to check so it made things seem smoother.

    I love the open once rule though, that is a life saver on its own and save time.

    I do need to work on unsubscribing however. Thanks again for the tip!

  • http://www.foursides.ca James M

    Using Priority Inbox can work to your advantage though. After a week of training it to work properly, you will be able to check your email in the morning and only look at the Priority Inbox of messages you need to deal with. The rest you can look at in the evening and probably process real fast. I find by the time I look at the non-Priority Inbox messages, I can delete 95% of them and only act on one or two.

  • http://lyndsysimon.com Lyndsy Simon

    I tend to take the opposite approach – I have all seven of my active email accounts on my iPhone. Whenever I take a break from what I’m doing, I’ll check my email on it. The smaller form factor means I won’t be wasting time replying to non-essential stuff, and I’m very unlikely to click through to something and start surfing on it. If something *really* needs followed up on, then and only then will I log into my Google Apps account and deal with it.

    I find that even working for a large company, there are only 3-5 emails per day that require immediate action. Everything else, I put off to answer just before I go home for the day.

  • http://www.jessilicious.com Jess Webb

    Oooooh, that makes TOTAL sense! lol. Thanks for the tip – I’ll definitely give that a try!

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    That’s interesting – I’ve never heard of that approach before :) but thanks for sharing it – why 7 email accounts vs. pairing down to all 7 @’s going to one email client?

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    The open only once rule is what saves me – Or else I would just get overwhelmed :) But it’s hard to be strict with yourself sometimes!

  • http://www.todayhaspower.com Rob

    Thanks Maren,
    Good post. I believe the open-once rule will alleviate time wasting tendencies I have at times. Decide and move on.

  • http://zacharyzorbas.com Zachary Zorbas

    #5 is the most important in my opinion. I used to always look over my email and then move on to something else without actually processing it. This is a huge waste of time and adds stress to the back of your mind.

    If you’re going to check email, plan to process it as well.

    Good post, Maren!

  • http://www.GenuineThriving.com/ Jeremiah Stanghini

    I really really like the open-once rule and comparing it to snail mail. Most people (I know) don’t open their letters, read them, and then put them somewhere only to be read again (unless it’s for some extenuating circumstance). We should really be treating our email inbox the same way. Read it once — file it.

    With Love and Gratitude,


  • Brad

    Wow… only checking at 10 am and 6 pm? I can understand having set times to do it, but that doesn’t seem often enough? What if someone sends you a hot lead at 10:15? In my business, it could be gone by 6.

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    I guess it’s a different business model – I would die w/ that kind of time-sensitive pressure – so it depends on the type of business you’re in :) Sorry should have clarified that.

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    Thanks Jeremiah! I know that’s the best “example” that really sticks w/ people i’ve found :)

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    You’re right – it can literally suck away your whole day if you just open and then move on w/ out assigning any action to an email. I used to do that and would spend hours going back and forth to my inbox in a state of limbo trying to figure out what to do next.

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  • http://www.15MinuteInbox.com/ Frieda

    Still more than valid post! I’m on a daily empty inbox now for more than 1,5 years and I don’t know any better. In my work with clients we try to get them to a maximum of 15 minutes per day on managing their inbox – which is very doable – and at least an empty inbox once per day, doesn’t matter when. This seems to give a bit more relief.