The Quick and Dirty Guide to Getting Your Email Inbox to Zero Today and Every Day

Originally published on on Aug 8, 2015 By Duff McDuffee
Key points:

  1. The email inbox is not a good to-do list, calendar, or place to store emails. It is good for one thing only: a temporary place to hold new, incoming email.
  2. It is simple to process your email inbox to zero when you have just a few basic categories in mind: junk, calendar, newsletters, things you actually need to do something about, reference.
  3. The first time is hard, but it is worth it. Then it only takes a few minutes a day.
  4. Processing your inbox to zero daily is an essential part of transforming your work life from overwhelmed to calm and focused, as well as just being a responsible adult.

Take a look at your email inbox. I’m serious, do it right now.
How many emails remain sitting in there, calling out for your attention.
Mine currently has zero. And at least once a day, I clear every last email out of it. This process usually takes me about 2-3 minutes for my personal email, or up to 15 minutes for my work account.
It’s a simple daily habit that can you too can acquire. I believe it’s something every adult should do, like brushing your teeth or paying your cell phone bill on time. We just haven’t been taught how to do it.
EMAIL IS A METAPHOR                                                                                                                                                
Remember postal mail, snail mail? Email is electronic mail. Your email inbox is your electronic mailbox.
But let’s extend the metaphor:
Imagine that you decide to just leave your postal mail in your physical mailbox. Every day you check your postal mail and in has come a mix of unwanted ads, credit card offers, bills to be paid, magazine subscriptions you don’t read anymore, party and wedding invites, and the ocassional letters from friends and family.
Imagine you just left all that paper mail in your mailbox, storing it in there indefinitely.
After a few weeks it is totally overflowing. After a few months, the mailman has created a stack next to the mailbox. A little while later your electricity gets shut off due to your not paying the bill and you are evicted.
Clearly your physical mailbox is not a good place to keep your postal mail. And it really doesn’t take much time to sort through it: ads in the recycling bin, bills on the desk to be paid later, read the letters from friends and perhaps intend to write back, invites on the calendar, call the magazines to be cancelled ooh except for this one which I’ll put near the lounge chair to read later.
How long did it take, 2 minutes?
We can and should do the same with our email. People use their email inbox as a calendar, a to-do list, a reading list, a reference file and more, but the email inbox was not designed for these tasks. The inbox is for one thing only: a temporary place to hold new incoming mail.
Just like with postal mail, we can sort through incoming email quickly by dividing things into categories:

  1. Junk: delete it.
  2. Calendar items: put them on your calendar then delete it.
  3. Newsletters: unsubscribe if you don’t actually read it. Otherwise there’s something to do which falls under
  4. Things you actually need to do something about:
    • If it will literally take less than 2 minutes, do it now. (Putting it on a to-do list and recalling it later will take longer than that and thus be inefficient.)
    • Otherwise, think for a minute about what the first action step will be and then put that on a to-do list.
  5. If you may need to reference it later, file it away somewhere. If not, delete it.

THE FINE POINTS.                                                                                                                                                             
Clearing your email inbox to zero doesn’t mean actually doing all the things contained in those emails. This is the big thing that trips people up. When we processed our physical paper mailbox, that didn’t mean actually paying the bills and reading the whole magazine and replying to every friend right there and then. You process your inbox by deciding what you need to do later. Then you write (or type) that stuff onto a list so you can remember to do it when you have time. Don’t use your email inbox as a to-do list! And don’t think you have to do everything in an email to move it elsewhere. Processing is a totally different step than doing.
The simpler your filing system, the better. In Gmail the easiest system is just to hit archive because the search function is great. I also delete a lot of stuff in Gmail. At work we use Mail for Mac and I aim to keep as few folders as possible. Don’t waste time creating a complex filing system.
It doesn’t matter what kind of calendar you use, just pick one. I use Google calendar. The things that should go on your calendar are “do or die” time-sensitive things: meetings, doctor’s appointments, pick up kids from school, as well as day reminders such as “Mom’s birthday” and “last day to order tickets for school concert.” Don’t schedule time to work on specific tasks unless you absolutely must.
A major exception to the 2-minute rule: if it’s a notification from social media, do not respond now! Social media sites are designed to hook you in and waste your time. Inevitably you will go to the site just to respond to this one thing and hours will go by before you know what happened. I personally turn off all email notifications from social media.
So that’s the basic strategy: delete, put on calendar, do it, defer it, or store it away.
ONE MORE BIG POINT.                                                                                                                                                  
When thinking about what you actually need to do about this thing, it may take you 60-120 seconds of slightly painful thinking to actually figure that out.
An email comes in from the boss. What do I need to do about it?
“I need to meet with Larry, no wait before that I need to prepare for a meeting with Larry, and to do that first I need to research how other companies have solved this problem. Oh, and to do that I can call Barbara at Innitech and set up a meeting with her to ask her how they did it. And her number, where did I put that, oh yea it’s in my old phone which I never got the contacts transfered over. Ok so the first thing I need to do is get my old phone out of the junk drawer at home and charge it so I can get Barbara’s number off of it.”
This is very often how the process goes, and this little bit of thinking (meta-work) is why you haven’t processed your email inbox to zero before. Because thinking is painful and as human beings we will do just about anything to avoid having to do it.
But sorry to say, your job requires you to think, so better get busy practicing it.
GETTING TO ZERO FOR THE FIRST TIME.                                                                                                    
Ok, so you’re following me so far, but your email inbox currently has thousands of messages in it. What do you do?
There are basically two approaches here:

  1. Be totally irresponsible.
  2. Suck it up, buttercup.

Approach #1 is to declare email bankruptcy by simply deleting or archiving your entire email inbox en masse and carte blanche. Voilà! Your email overwhelm problem solved in seconds.
Except this is totally irresponsible. People sent you emails for a reason, and they are awaiting your reply.
You rationalize that “if it is important, they will write me another email.” Maybe, maybe not. But it’s kind of a jerk move to make other people do twice as much work because you were irresponsible in the first place.
This method doesn’t train you in the important skill of being an adult and dealing responsibly with your responsibilities.
But that said, I admit that I’ve done this once or twice before. I’m not proud of it.
The far more mature and healthy way is to suck it up and make the time to go through each and every email until you reach zero. Many emails aren’t even necessary to open though: you can search for all emails from a particular newsletter or sender and delete those all at once. Emails past a few months or a year old become very easy to delete or archive quickly. But even so, it still may take you a few hours the first time.
But it is worth it.
The first time you get to absolute zero is an amazing, almost spiritual experience. People report feeling lighter, anxiety-free, like the clouds have parted after a thunderstorm and the sun has finally come out again.
I recommend scheduling a time when you will not be interrupted and you are unlikely to get a lot of new emails in for doing your first major clearing. This might mean working on a weekend. Schedule 2-4 hours. If you have over 10,000 emails in your inbox, schedule a whole 8-hour day.
I’m not gonna lie, it’s hard work to get to zero for the first time. But then it is easy and only takes 15-30 minutes a day for most people.
The goal is to get to zero once a day from then on. For work accounts, 5 days a week is sufficient. For my personal email it is every day, usually only taking me less than 5 minutes a day. In fact, I often wake up to an empty inbox due to my aggressive email filters. But that’s a lesson for another day.
Your mission if you choose to accept it:
Schedule 2-4 hours to get your email inbox to zero for the first time.
Each day for 30 days after that, spend 15-30 minutes getting it to zero.
WHERE PEOPLE GET TRIPPED UP.                                                                                                                     
What do I use for a to-do list?
The short answer is, “it doesn’t matter.” Seriously. People waste huge amounts of time optimizing their to-do lists instead of actually doing the things on their lists. (I know this from experience.)
Using pen and paper is more efficient than spending two weeks getting Omnifocus to automatically send reminders to your smart TV or whatever. The point is to do stuff, not find more ways to procrastinate.
I use Wunderlist, mostly because it’s free and it works well enough. But it doesn’t matter.
If it’s not in my inbox, how will I remember to do it?
Because from now on you will work from your to-do list(s), not your email inbox.
Again, imagine someone reminding themselves to pay the bills by leaving all their incoming postal mail in their physical mailbox. This makes no sense at all.
Work from a to-do list, not your inbox.
At first this may cause you some anxiety as you are no longer able to disown your responsibility for making choices as you did when you merely reacted to incoming stimuli all day. This feeling will pass as you gain more familiarity with choosing instead of reacting.
Can’t I just leave this one email in my inbox?
No. I mean, yes, you are an adult and can do whatever you want. You can eat marshmallows and gum drops for breakfast if you want. But no, don’t do that.
The #1 reason people want to leave stuff in their inbox is because we resist doing that 2 minutes of hard thinking about exactly what is the first action we need to take to get this thing done.
Thinking is painful, we are lazy, so we leave “just this one” in the inbox. A week later there are 347 emails in the inbox.
So no, get it to zero, absolute zero, once per day.