Three Quick Steps to a Zero Inbox

Tired of wondering if you’re missing something in your email inbox? Believe it or not, that feeling weighs on your subconscious more than you know. Rather than live with anxiety, let’s process those emails and get you to a zero inbox. Yes, that’s right, a zero inbox. Not one email will remain. Is it possible? Yes! In fact, it’s possible to keep a zero inbox which means guilt, worry and stress-free email maintenance. Ready?

Here are three quick steps to implementing a zero inbox:

1) Create a four new folders:

  • @Action – Used to put emails that require a timely response
  • @Someday – Used to put emails that require your attention, but timing is not an issue
  • @Follow Up – You put emails here that you’ve replied to, but it requires that you follow up with someone about the status of the email
  • Archive – This is where all of your processed email will reside. When it’s here, you’re done.

2) Survey your inbox and look for emails that you know require a response. Don’t forget to separate them into what kind of response is required. Drag those into your @Action, @Someday or @Follow-up folders so you can process them later.

3) All emails that remain, select all and move them to your Archive folder.

Now, if you have a lot of emails in your inbox, this is sure to bring a certain level of anxiety—of which will probably make you second guess if you can really do this. You can. If you need to recall a particular email, that’s what your email programs search function is for. Get to know it because it will be your friend.

If you’re one of those people who has a 100 different folders—one for each client, project, person, idea, thought, receipt, etc., I highly recommend that you rid of them all and focus your efforts on using the Archive folder. Why? What makes this system work is your ability to trust your own system. If you can’t remember what folder it’s in, then how will you find it? Sure, you can use your email search function, but then why have the extra folders to comb through? Throw all processed email into your Archive folder and be done with it. Trust me on this one. It’s theraputic.

Now that you have cleaned out your inbox, take a moment to enjoy the mental relief. Go on. Sit back. Take a screenshot and TwitPic it to your friends, family even your mom would love to see what you accomplished.

The beauty of this system is that you know exactly where the emails are that require your response and when so your worry of missing an email are gone. You will be amazed at how much mental energy will be freed up because of zero-inbox.

Before I go, here are some keys to remember:

  • Your inbox is a place to process and sort email. It’s not where you store it.
  • When an email comes in, if you can reply in under two minutes, do it immediately. If not, sort it.
  • Empty your inbox every day. Yes, that means that when you shut down for the day, your inbox is empty.
  • Set aside one day a week to go through your @Someday and @Follow Up folders to make sure out-dated items aren’t piling up. In doing this, you’ll be surprised at how on top of things you’ll feel.
  • DON’T GIVE UP! Even if you get behind, spend an hour and process your inbox accordingly.

Bonus: If you keep email open all day long, that’s what you’ll do all day long. In my experience, when you process offline, you stop the leak of new emails which gives you the time to focus on the emails sitting in your @Action and @Someday folders.

So, do you think you can do it? If you already live zero-inbox, what tips can you offer?

If you like this, you’ll loveThree Quick Steps to Eliminating To-do List Anxiety

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  • Kristy C

    I changed my inbox game like you told me too, and it has been so nice to look at my e-mail and see it as manageable now! Thanks for your advice!

    • Kyle

      Anything for you baby.

  • Dan

    I'm doing something very similar except instead of the Action, Someday, and FollowUp folders, I use a GTD program called Things from Cultured Code to manage what I need to do when. You are correct though in that there's a special feeling seeing your Inbox (in my case, Inboxes from 5 different accounts) empty.

  • Jeremy

    Great advice – I am awful at inbox management and typically have a couple thousand messages pile up before I clean it all out. If we could all follow such advice, email would eat up so much less of our time…

    • Kyle

      Did you clean out the inbox yet?

  • Pingback: 3 Quick Steps to an Empty Email Inbox | Jerm()

  • Sara M

    I can’t leave a comment to you right now! I’m too busy cleaning out my inbox!

    (thanks for the tips!) :)

    btw – how near are you to Franklin TN? I just had a friend move there from Bend…

  • jcatron

    Ok, I'm the girl with a zillion folders. :)

    What a great, practical system… I'm gonna give it a shot!

    • Kyle Chowning

      How did it go Jenni? 

    • Kyle Chowning

      Hey Jenni. Did you do the Zero Inbox plan? Just curious.

  • @footprintCG

    Good stuff, Kyle. Practical advice.

    I'm all about the subfolders. And there's NOTHING for the work psychy like white zero inbox!

    On a related note, I despise the ol' 'preview pane' in email and NEVER use it. It encourages you to scan emails and never really DEAL with them and resolve them. PLUS, it makes it harder to achieve that coveted email inbox white space.

  • @kylereed

    That is my biggest struggle. I leave email on all day and get distracted. It allows me to respond immediately but it also takes away from my work.

    I need to shut it down and get stuff done. Thanks for the kick in the pants Kyle

    • Kyle Chowning

      Yeah…it’s a time-suck for sure. Try opening it every 2 hours and processing from there. My guess is that you’ll see, or at least, feel 100% more productive.

      Let me know how it goes.

      • @kylereed

        I think my problem is that I like to be on and I like to get conversation, so I love getting email. In some ways I have to step back and remind myself just how silly it is to get excited about getting an alert to something and focus on the work.

        I will try the two hour idea. I think that will be liberating in some ways.

  • Jeremy Reis

    As my inbox starts to escape me again, I pull up this trusty blog post to get me back on track. Thanks Kyle!

  • Richie Allen

    How do you keep it synced with your other devices? Are the folders on your server or local?

    • Kyle Chowning

      Hi Richie! Thanks for reading.

      I use google apps for all of my email hosting, do keeping a server based folder structure proves to be simple and essential to the system. The basic rule is, if you don’t trust it fully, you won’t trust it all, making the system breakdown.

      • Richie Allen

        Ah I see. So what about the throwaway mail? Does it go into the archive folder, or is that reserved for completed actionable emails? I know google doesn’t have a “trash” button, but uses an “Archive” button instead. Just clarifying if that’s the folder you are referencing or not.

        • Kyle Chowning

          Google’s mail has an “all mail” folder that suffices as your “archive.” That’s what I use instead of creating a separate archive folder.

          • Richie Allen

            Okay. Makes sense. Thanks so much!!! Gonna give this a try. Currently have about 16,000 emails in my inbox. Good time to clean it out. :)

          • Kyle Chowning

            whoa! That’s a lot of emails.

            Have fun.

  • Donald McAllister

    Great advice! I’ve been looking for a system to get to zero and manage it all. thanks

    • Kyle Chowning

      Thanks Don. Don’t forget to post how many emails you cleared in the comments so people can be encouraged.

      • Donald McAllister

        finally finished. now at zero!! cleared over 2,500 emails!

  • kylehance

    Wow. I just did this. And it’s amazing how much anxiety just left me. Thanks for this!

    • Kyle Chowning

      Welcome to the world of zero inbox. It will change your mental health forever.