Inbox zero

A quick overview of my two email inboxes shows that I have 2,200 emails in one and just under 400 in the other. Why am I holding on to all of these messages? I’m not sure, but I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that some of you also have ridiculously high message counts.

Inbox clutter is definitely a issue I have yet to conquer and the problem is not taking care of itself. Over at 43 Folders, Merlin Mann has quite the series on emptying your inbox. It is called Inbox Zero. The series is extensive and also includes an hour long video of Mr. Mann’s Inbox Zero presentation.

From the introduction:

Clearly, the 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.

Just as with any clutter, inbox clutter effects focus and takes away from the task at hand. Holding onto messages for no reason other than the fact that you “may need them one day.” Sounds like the excuse for clutter that takes up space in your basement, attic, or garage.

22 Comments for “Inbox zero”

  1. posted by Gayle on

    Inbox Zero isn’t necessarily about deleting emails – but about removing the clutter from you inbox itself. It gives clear techniques on making sure you immediately take action on an item – whether that be replying, tagging, archiving, or deleting – so that it doesn’t clutter up your inbox or your brain.

    I love leaving almost nothing in my inbox. It’s the best feeling.

  2. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    I just got my own e-mail inbox to empty, and wrote about it here:

    I’m amazed at just how good it makes me feel!

  3. posted by Alex Fayle on

    I always have fewer than 5 emails in my inbox. Some of those, however, I can ignore for months at a time. I would do better by those poor neglected people if my inbox policy was “empty” and not “5”.

    Now that I use Gmail, I rarely delete messages, but with the increase in the idea of the environmental cost of data storage, I’m going to start deleting old messages.

  4. posted by eternalvoyageur on

    “the environmental cost of data storage”
    This phrase intrigued me, I had never thought abut that before.
    Here is what I found:

  5. posted by Brian Lang on

    I ran across a series of articles on the Macworld website:
    1. Turn down the volume on your e-mail (
    2. The fast way to file your e-mail (
    3. Clean out old e-mail messages (
    I’ve implemented this 100% on my work e-mail, and 95% on my personal e-mail. I use my personal e-mail as a reminder list as well, so I can’t clean out every item yet. There’s only about 10 messages there though, so it’s not a huge burden on my time.

  6. posted by Leslie on

    I don’t understand how people have so many emails in an inbox. It is like having a garage full of junk mail! My strategy is very simple. I delete everything as soon as it is no longer pending. That email confirmation from an internet purchase? As soon as it arrives, the email is gone. Everything else gets deleted or filed in the appropriate file: Files for each kid, photos, recipes, projects.

    If something deleted is later needed, I can do a search (Yahoo mail) and there it is – whether it has been deleted or not. Why keep it all in my inbox? I rarely have more than 15-20 items in my inbox. My ongoing goal is to see my entire inbox in one pane without having to scroll down.

    Am I missing something?

  7. posted by supersocco on

    I use Gmail. With its search and labeling functions there is no need to waste precious time sorting through email. Gmail also integrates with my Calendar and other apps. It is accessible from any computer as well.

    Quit wasting time sorting and deleting your email.

  8. posted by Steve on

    I have to warn you though……tackling inbox clutter is not easy unless it is part of a larger system, such as GTD. The reason why junk accumulates in the inbox is because it is one of the few places you know you’ll see it, so putting it somewhere else that you do not check as often will put a damper on your productivity because your mind will not be at ease knowing that all of your data is not in a reliable and easy to accces place. No don’t get me wrong……most of those emails are things you should have deleted months ago, but to truly get down to the “zero” philosophy that Merlin Mann subscribes to, it MUST be part of a larger system.

  9. posted by penguinlady on

    I get hundreds of emails a day at work (I was out for two weeks and came back to more than 3000 messages), so I have to keep on top of my inbox. Most of his rules are good, but if you have to keep threads for accounting/record purposes, it’s not good to delete too much. Most of what I get is informational, but I need to keep it organized so I can quickly and accurately find it later.

    My way of staying sane is to keep only “action items” in my inbox. Everything else get filed away. It might get up to 140 action items at a busy/crisis time(like last week… ugh!), but once I’m done with that particular project, it’s back down to a manageable 20.

  10. posted by infmom on

    I can’t agree with the “Gmail lets you sort and search so just leave everything in there” philosophy. Would you do the same with every last bit of paper mail that came to your nonelectronic mailbox?

    After reading an email, if there’s no compelling reason to keep it (and “it might come in handy someday” isn’t a compelling reason) delete it. And if there is a compelling reason to keep it, archive it somewhere other than your inbox. I use Eudora to pick up my email from all my accounts (including Gmail) and I have a mailbox called File Folder for those kinds of things. I go through that every so often and delete things no longer necessary for reference. And all my Eudora mailboxes except the trash get backed up to an external hard drive at least once a week.

    With Gmail, it also helps to go through the spam folder about once a week to see if something non-spam has ended up in there. Then, of course, you delete all the real spam. Yes, I know, Google dumps it automatically after 30 days, but if you’re going to look for genuine mail it’s a lot easier with only a week’s worth of mailbox mulch.

    My husband couldn’t bear the thought of flat-out dumping over 3000 messages from his Outlook inbox at work, so he moved them all to a folder called “90 days.” If he hasn’t had any reason to look at any of that stuff in 90 days, it’s gone.

  11. posted by RKB on

    Also well worth reading on this topic is Mark Hurst’s “Bit Literacy,” which covers more than just managing your inbox. From chapter 1:

    “Some people mistakenly try to engage all the bits, all the time, with an ‘always-on’ lifestyle. For example, a familiar sight in airports these days is Busy Man. He’s the one with the latest device in hand, scrolling through messages, or barking into a cell phone as he dashes through the terminal, oblivious to everyone and everything around him – the picture of stress and anxiety. On some level, Busy Man likes acting this way because it proves he’s important. The more bits he drowns in, the more urgent his work becomes; and urgency, to him, equates to importance. It also offers him a good excuse if he misses a meeting or acts rudely – he was ‘maxed out,’ after all, when it happened. Despite how it may appear, working in such a way is neither effective nor sustainable. Urgency and haste are not the way to manage bits properly.”

  12. posted by Marie on

    Email clutter . . . another type of hoarding? Maybe Oprah should do another special πŸ™‚

  13. posted by Shalin on

    At work, I try to only have 1 page of e-mails (many are virtually reference info for misc. office things). Everything else get’s filed away in a folder.

    My personal e-mail inbox – that’s a whole other story. πŸ˜‰


  14. posted by JefferyK on

    Thanks to the 4D technique described in GTD, I leave the office with an empty inbox every day. Sure, there are 50 e-mails in the “Waiting For” folder, but those are tasks for other folks, not me.

  15. posted by Kat on

    After reading GTD, I dumped all the messages in my Inbox into a “Backlog” folder and started again. Then, every day, I’d go through 10-20 Backlog messages and deal with them. I don’t have that folder anymore. πŸ™‚ My e-mail application has an expiration function, which means it will delete stuff for me automatically, depending on which folder I’ve filed it in (e.g. newsletters are deleted after about 3 months), so I have some leeway to retrieve information if I need it, but I don’t hang on to useless stuff forever.

    On Gmail, where the temptation to keep messages forever is great, I mark many of my messages “Delete-“. So things like discount coupons, etc. that I want to keep, just in case, but which are useless in a month’s time, I can keep in my Inbox where I’m reminded of them, but they’ll automatically be removed when I delete the messages next month. I also use these for chat transcripts or interesting things that I might want to refer to over the coming weeks, but which have no long-term value. I consider it my wishy-washy-but-not-forever folder/label/whathaveyou.

  16. posted by Kat on

    That should be “Delete-(Next month)”.

  17. posted by Emma on

    The system I use is: inbox heaven by put things off. I’ve used it for a few weeks now and it works perfectly – for me!

  18. posted by Andy on

    I’ve been incorporating the GTD mentality into my life, combined with an Inbox zero policy. Since I have Gmail, I’ve been using the Trusted Trio using Gmail (described here: ). I went from a ridiculous number of emails to just the ones that still needed an action within just a couple hours.

  19. posted by Erin on

    I am just about to start a new job and I read your post thinking what better time to go to Inbox Zero. Two days ago, I had over 1700 emails. Today when I left work I had exactly – zero. I did file some things that I still need to take action on but I set up reminders for those things. Thanks for the impetus to make a clean break.

    Now if I can only do the same with my stuff…I am moving to a much smaller cube and I won’t need any of the trappings (files, books, tools) of my old job. I will be in major purge mode for the next week.

  20. posted by ProductivityScience on

    Do not haste to empty your inbox, read this:

  21. posted by Ellis Godard on

    Another important way to keep the inflow down, that I haven’t seen noted here or elsewhere, is to keep the outflow up. If you’re fully uncluttered, and maximally productive, getting things out to people before they expect it, they won’t appear in your inbox asking for updates. πŸ™‚

  22. posted by FrugalNYC on

    This really is amazing and definitely makes you “Feel” more productive. I wrote a post about it here and its my take on implementing it. I prefer the 3 folders method.

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