Home / regulars / NaBloPoMo / Inbox Zero: 5 Quick Strategies for Zeroing Out Your Inbox

Inbox Zero: 5 Quick Strategies for Zeroing Out Your Inbox

Inbox Zero–Have you heard of it? If you read 43folders or Lifehacker, you probably have. Inbox Zero is Merlin Mann‘s philosophy on handling email, and in short, it means that you keep your email inbox at 0 messages by managing the inflow, behind-the-scenes filtering, and dash responding. It is a New Year’s Revoluation of mine, which I added to the list between January 1st and the end of March.

I did okay for a while, but as a teacher, I get so many emails! Students, fellow instructors, the department, the Language Centre tutors, my bosses. I know I’m not the only one who gets lots of emails: Emails barrage us all all the time. And Zero Inbox offers a method of staying sane beneath it all.

I am having moderate success with it. I am using Gmail’s powerful filters to filter distractions (Facebook, MySpace, and any other social networking site). They pass the inbox and get labeled “social media”. I do not see them unless I check that label. One problem solved. I also use the filters to automatically label most of the emails that come into my inbox. That way, I can archive most emails knowing that I will easily be able to find them again if I need them.

Where I have problems with Inbox Zero is responding. I use lables to tell me what needs my attention: reply-to, needs-action, and waiting-for-response. Now, if I can just carve out some time each day for dash responses.

I have carved out one hour at least for my PhD, but my email responding wouldn’t make Mr. Mann happy. I respond to emails right away if it will take me less than 2 minutes. Longer responses have to wait. Sometimes I’ll get to them within 24 hours, but I think most of the time, it takes me somewhere between 5 days and a month to respond, depending on the urgency. Yikes.

I do have some basic elements of email management under control, and I’d like to share those with you today. The first five steps are what helped me to move from treading water to feeling like I was at least walking in shallow water–I haven’t totally moved onto dry land as far as email management is concerned, but I am safe enough that I can throw you a rope out there.

5 Steps for Quick Email Management

  1. Use filters and labels. If you have a large inflow of messages every day, filters will make it easier to deal with. Use filters as I describe above, to eliminate distracting emails before they distract you.
  2. Unsubscribe without abandon. Unsubscribe from all of the newsletters you’re just deleting anyway. Why let them waste your time? If you really can’t live without certain newsletters, coupon lists, and sale adverts, use filters to have those emails get labeled and skip the inbox. Then you can check them once a week to see what’s good and not be bothered by them when you are trying to work.
  3. Use the “2 minutes or less” rule. Get the easy-to-answer emails out of the way by responding right away.
  4. Use templates. Don’t write the same message over and over again. Gmail just introduced “Canned Responses” (which should be called “Email Templates”) as a new Labs feature, so you’re in luck if you’re a Gmail user. But if not, create a folder on your flash drive for everywhere-access called “Email Templates” and create text files of emails that you write frequently. Then, it’s just copy-and-paste, and you’ve saved 2 minutes.
  5. Make time every day. Okay, so this isn’t really a “quick step,” and I’m working on this one too. But like Mom always said, “How do you eat an elephant? One bit at a time.” Email definitely is an elephant.

Question of the Day

It’s your chance to weigh in on a question I am undecided on: Should we receive email only once a day (by only checking it once a day) or is it okay to check it several times a day?

10 thoughts on “Inbox Zero: 5 Quick Strategies for Zeroing Out Your Inbox

  1. Pingback: 35. Getting real mail/email * | 100 Things That Make Me Happy Besides Money

  2. PointSpecial

    26 Nov on 2008 at 17:25


    That 10 minute rule is something I need to start doing… I’m pursuing my masters currently, but I’m also working full time and I have two 4 week old boys at home… I really feel like I’m being tugged in all these different directions! It is so easy to push things off… but I need to make ’em a priority.

    That’s another reason why cutting down the distractions of email and Reader are going to totally be helpful!

    • xgravity23

      27 Nov on 2008 at 23:38

      @PointSpecial – Man, you have a lot on your plate! Well, I hope the 10-minute rule combined with eliminating distractions in email and (sadly, I know) trimming down those feeds helps. I’m right along with ya, that’s for sure!

  3. xgravity23

    25 Nov on 2008 at 20:25

    @PointSpecial@PointSpecial – You’re so right about so many things! Life is just easier when your inbox isn’t all cluttered with half-read, maybe responded to messages.

    I’m so glad to hear I inspired you to clean up a bit! The unsubscribing is so huge. I was getting so much junk from various web sites I had signed up with to try their online services and whatnot. Some were too difficult to unsubscribe from, but it makes such a difference.

    You’ll love the auto-label then archive. Another life-saver.

    Ugh, the feed reader… I had more time a year ago, and I’m slowly coming to realize that I need to shave those feeds. I usually have over 1,000 unread posts, but that’s because I have a “trash can” of posts I don’t have time to read anymore but I really enjoy reading. Someday, I might start reading them again, but until then, the first thing I do when I load Google Reader is empty my “C-list.” Then it’s down to a manageable situation again. :) Maybe a C-list or Someday list could help you with your interests. The first and only rule is that you MAAR (Mark all as read) first thing.

    I’ve been using the “10 minute rule” on my PhD, but it’s a 1-hour rule. I work on it for at least 1 hour a day. Sometimes, I struggle to stay focused for that hour (usually this happens on the days I teach…), but sometimes, I work for 90 minutes or 2 hours. Or more! It’s definitely a good rule.

  4. PointSpecial

    23 Nov on 2008 at 9:06


    My life is much easier when I DO keep a zero’d out inbox…though I don’t always zero it out completely. Right now, I have 9 (already read) emails in my inbox… 4 of them sent to myself that are essentially collections of things I was doing online but didn’t have time to read or finish, some stuff for Grad school that really should be transferred to THAT email address but hasn’t been yet, and some info about my own blog.

    Almost all of those emails are tagged, ‘cept for a few of the ones I sent myself that really don’t have a proper tag.

    I was inspired, though, by your post to clean out my life a bit.

    I did go through and unsubscribe from several emails that I have been getting that I just delete… and I get a whole bunch. I have 37 labels and I have a whole bunch of filters set up to drop new emails right in the labels… already archived, so they skip my in box. This helps a ton… but it still takes a while to sift through all of those, so that’s what I’ve been cutting back on.

    I also have shaved off some of my RSS feeds in my reader. I have 13 different categories that I’ve got several different feeds in… and I started cutting back on the ones that I really don’t read. I also took some of the emails that I was getting and am choosing the RSS option instead of the email option for things that HAVE this option. This is good because email comes first… and my Reader is just secondary. It DOES take a while to sift through when I have 230 unread posts, like I did earlier today when I hadn’t looked at my Reader for 5 days… but that’s part of the cutting down, too. Which ones to I really want to read?

    Part of the problem for me is that I’ll get really interested in a topic and I’ll exhaustively research it… and I’ll get a whole bunch of extra info coming in to me via email or through the Reader. Because I spent time on it previously, and because it interests me, I (almost) feel an obligation to continue to get those things… even if it doesn’t QUITE interest me now like it did (I mean, what if I miss something that would be really meaningful later?!).

    I’ve gotta just get over that, though, I think… I may have to create a rule, if I delete X 3 times, then it’s time to get rid of it…

    My mom had a thing kind of similar to your mom’s “elephant” thing… and it had to do with picking up my room when I was little. She used to say that I should pick up 10 things before I went to bed… I usually ended up picking up more than that and my room got clean… but it wouldn’t have if I didn’t carve out the time for those 10 things!

  5. Pingback: How NaBloPoMo has Changed My Blogging | Linden's Pensieve

  6. Daniel Hargett

    18 Nov on 2008 at 21:34

    This is why having a smartphone rocks! You can respond to your e-mail in those short blocks of free time you have throughout the day. Like going to the bathroom, riding on your way to work, or in bed when you can’t sleep. I check mine everytime my phone buzzes and tells me I have a new one. Most of the time I reply within 24 hours, unless it gets pushed down to far and I forget about it. I don’t trip on having 0 messages in my inbox either. As long as they’re replied to, that’s all that matters to me.

    • xgravity23

      19 Nov on 2008 at 20:28

      @Daniel Hargett – See, that’s the problem with having lots of messages in your inbox: Sometimes (a lot of times if you get lots of emails) important emails get pushed to the bottom of the inbox…. You’ve sold me on the smartphone, though… now I just need to figure out which one is best for me. :)

  7. ww

    18 Nov on 2008 at 6:04

    I think I have a psychological block against the 0 inbox… I’d rather have something in there to prove that somebody is making contact…

    As for checking the e-mail multiple times a day… I can see why that would be a question for you. Personally I know that e-mail can be a distraction, or a way to avoid other work that I should be focusing on at the time. On the other hand, I think if I was having a hard time responding to all my e-mail, I’d rather deal with my e-mail a few messages at a time than see an intimidating bloc of messages when I opened up my inbox.

    • xgravity23

      19 Nov on 2008 at 20:10

      @ww – There is something psychological about it… but when I have “maintained Inbox Zero” (which never lasted more than a couple days), I felt super organized and on top of things, so that was good psychologically, too.

      I just read an eBook about why and how to keep an Inbox Zero, and it has really convinced to me to give it another try. We’ll see how it goes…