What Is Inbox Zero?
Inbox Zero is a pretty self-explanatory concept. In a nutshell, it’s the goal of having absolutely no unread emails sitting in your inbox and reminding you that more work still needs to be done. Despite how simple it sounds, a vast majority of people who have ever attempted to achieve it failed. Why? Because they approached Inbox Zero wrong.
Inbox Zero isn’t one of those goals that you can hastily complete during an especially productive Saturday morning and never think about it again. Unless you’re willing to cut yourself off the world and live a life of a recluse, new emails will keep coming and coming, constantly taking the status of Inbox Zero away from you.
However, with the right Zero Inbox rule-based strategy, you can easily keep things under control and ensure that your email management effort won’t go to waste.
How to Reach Zero Inbox?
Reaching and, more importantly, maintaining Inbox Zero may seem like an impossible goal to achieve, but that’s true only if you’re not familiar with the inbox management tips below.
Value Your Time
The Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, states that roughly 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes. This rule can also be applied to email management as only roughly 20 percent of emails deserve our attention. Knowing that most emails are worthless, or at least low priority, by far the worst thing you can do is install a web browser email plugin so that you’re instantly reminded of new emails as soon as you receive them.
The chances are that you won’t always have the time to instantly deal with each and every email you get. Most people with email notifications turn on will simply start to ignore them sooner or later, allowing their inboxes to balloon up to unmanageable proportions.
Instead, we recommend you value your time by turning email notifications off and dedicating a specific time slot solely to email management. If you don’t use email all that much, you’ll probably get away with a single 15-minute time slot. If email is an integral part of your workflow, you may want to dedicate multiple time slots to email management and spread them evenly apart so that you always respond to incoming emails in a timely manner.
To ensure that a 15-minute time slot won’t stretch to 30 or 60 minutes, it’s a good idea to use a timeboxing app that lets you assign a specific amount of time to your tasks. Apps like Clockify, HourStack, or TickTick Premium can tell you when it’s time to stop managing your emails and start working on some other task. They also provide detailed productivity statistics so that you can see exactly how much time email management costs you every day, week, and month. Read our list of the best productivity apps for Mac.
There’s no way how you can stop the flow of emails to your inbox, so it’s critically important to make your email management efforts as consistent as possible. We recommend you check your inbox the first thing in the morning before you start your work and then a few more times throughout the day. If you use multiple email services, pick a one time-slot for Inbox Zero Gmail management, one for Inbox Zero Outlook management, and so on.
If you find yourself struggling to maintain consistency because of the huge number of email messages that constantly force their way into your inbox, it might be the right time to get some help. If you’re in a management position, you can hire a personal assistant to screen your inbox and highlight important emails for you. Over time, you can even task your assistant with responding to less important messages, essentially taking care of the first number in the 80/20 rule.
Small teams can share access to a single email address and use labels, folders, and other organization methods to delegate emails to one another. This way, no one on the team will spend too much time on email management and potentially burn out.
Individuals who use email for personal purposes probably won’t be able to justify hiring a personal assistant just to help them keep their inbox under control, but that doesn’t mean they’re on their own. You can enlist the help of a digital personal assistant in the form of an Inbox Zero app like Clean Email. Just like a real personal assistant, Clean Email can identify important emails for you, move all junk messages to trash, and generally make it a lot easier for you to maintain Inbox Zero.
Delete Junk Emails
If you’ve been using email for a while, you can most likely immediately recognize junk emails. You can save yourself a lot of time if you delete every junk email you see without opening it. Just be sure to unsubscribe from the associated mailing list as well, but more on that later.
Unfortunately, not all mailing lists include an unsubscribe link (even though they're required by law to include one). You have several options on how to stop emails from a mailing list that doesn't include a clearly obvious way for subscribers to opt out.
You can mark all emails from the unwanted mailing list as spam to inform your email client or service that you're no longer interested in them. Most email clients and services will learn to recognize all future emails from the same mailing list as spam and automatically mark them accordingly. However, not all spam filters learn equally fast, and they sometimes require you to mark many emails from the same sender as spam before they start doing anything about future emails from the sender.
Email filters, on the other hand, work instantly, but they can be more difficult to set up. Each email client and service is different, and it would be beyond the scope of this article to describe them all in detail. In general, you need to specify the email address that you want to filter and tell your email client or service what you want to happen with emails from it, and under what conditions.
One of the deadliest email management sins is failing to respond to important emails in a timely manner. Remember that Inbox Zero is all about having no unread emails left in your inbox. Many people who practice it are tempted to read new emails as soon as possible to see the number zero again, but they’re usually not equally keen on responding instantly.
What sometimes happens then is that important emails that deserve a response get buried under a massive pile of unimportant emails. That’s why you should always respond to every important email you open immediately. Keep your responses short and to the point—you’re not writing a novel, and the other person is most likely just as busy as you are.
Some advanced practitioners of Inbox Zero don't respond to emails instantly because they understand that the fewer email messages they send, the fewer responses they get. Of course, it would be foolish not to respond quickly to important emails just because you would like to receive fewer messages, but leaving emails to age before you respond to them can be an effective way how to deal with low-priority conversations.
What usually happens when you take some time before you respond is that the person on the other side learns more about the problem you're discussing and answers some questions without your help. As a result, a conversation that would require 10 emails may require only two or three.
Become an Email Guru
Modern email clients come with all sorts of useful features to help you respond to emails faster. For example, achieving Zero Inbox Gmail is much easier if you know that you can press the Ctrl (or command) key and the numbers 1 to 9 to switch between tabs, or that you can expand selected conversation in the message pane.
Other Gmail keyboard shortcut that all Inbox Zero practitioners should know include:
- Previous message in an open conversation: p
- Next message in an open conversation: n
- Send: ⌘/Ctrl + Enter
- Insert a link: ⌘/Ctrl + k
- Bold: ⌘/Ctrl + b
- Italics: ⌘/Ctrl + i
- Underline: ⌘/Ctrl + u
- Compose: c
- Go to Inbox: g + i
- Go to All mail: g + a
In addition to keyboard shortcuts, you should also learn to snooze emails for later, assign labels to emails, and create email filters. If you use email for work and spend a lot of time writing the same information or phrases over and over again, you should consider using a text expander application.
A text expander lets you easily insert snippets of text using a quick search or abbreviation from a repository of boilerplate content. By typing just a few letters, you can insert an entire email signature, product pricing information, images, forms, and so on.
Obsessed with productivity and constantly wonder how to achive more at work, at home, and in life in general? Follow our guide on How to be more productive.
Use an Inbox Zero App
Our last Inbox Zero tip is arguably the most important one: use an Inbox Zero app to automate the organization and removal of emails you don’t need. There are several Inbox Zero apps that you can download, but the one we recommend the most is Clean Email, an online Inbox Zero app with support for Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo, and all other major email service providers.
How to Get to Inbox Zero with Clean Email?
Clean Email features a unique three-step approach to email organization. First, you link your email account with Clean Email. Second, you let Clean Email automatically organize your emails into easy-to-review bundles. Third, you instruct Clean Email to apply various actions to the groups of emails it created.
The examples of email groups created by Clean Email include bounced email notifications, emails sent or received a long time ago, subscriptions and newsletters, junk emails and spam, large emails, social network notifications, and online shopping emails, just to name a few. You can move these groups to trash, archive them, mark them as read or unread, remove them, and more.
Clean Email also comes with a feature called Smart Unsubscribe, which can be applied to any group of emails with a single click. Once applied, Smart Unsubscribe will automatically move all matching emails to Trash so you will never see them again.
Apart from Smart Unsubscribe, you can also apply any other action to new emails coming to your mailbox automatically, including Mark as Read, Archive, and others. All your Automation rules will appear in a dedicated dashboard, where you can pause them, delete them, or reactivate them. Visit this page to learn more about Clean Email’s smart automation capabilities.
You can start with Clean Email for free and upgrade only when you want to. It works with all popular email services, including Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Outlook, AOL, and Office 365. Clean Email doesn't share, sell, or give away your personal information, and it uses state-of-the-art encryption to keep your password safe.
Built to work from any device and for all email clients, Clean Email is one of those email management applications that pay for themselves as it can make you significantly more productive, allowing you to focus on the important things in life. One Clean Email subscription covers your mailbox across ALL your devices!