Many of us have a love-hate relationship with email. We love it because it streamlines communication and provides an efficient way to communicate and get help. We hate it because it takes a huge amount of time, is impersonal and often times creates misunderstandings.

What you will learn…

  1. The single most effective way to manage your email – Inbox 0
  2. Confidence that you can get there
  3. And confidence that you can maintain

The Madness

The challenge with email is that it is continuous. If you do pure math, there are 269 billion emails sent a day and 3.7 billion email users, so that is over 72 emails each day.  The website Templify says that “An average office worker receives 121 emails a day and sends around 40 business emails daily.”  These numbers are staggering.

The problem is how to deal with all these emails. There are a number of options, but most people do one of two things.

  • Check their email a number of times a day, skims the new messages, deals with them, maybe files some away in folders, and leave the rest in their inbox.
  • Has their email notify them when a new email comes in and deals with any that look urgent on the spot. They too set aside some time to go through their emails, deal with them and leave the bulk still in their inbox.

This model really does not work. The inbox grows and most people have no idea if they have read or dealt with everything. They know they have not, but do the best that they can. When I got myself into this situation and went back to clean up my inbox (see below for the approach), I was shocked at the number of emails that I had never even opened!

Overcoming this Madness – Inbox 0

The best approach that I have found – by far is Inbox 0.

There are a few different interpretations of Inbox 0. Mine is that at least once each day, you get to the point where there are zero emails in your inbox

I do create a special new folder that I call TODO. This folder is where I put emails that will require me to schedule the time to read and/or resolve. You are thinking – great, I will just move all of my emails into the TODO folder and I am done. Wrong, the TODO folder has a special requirement that it can contain no more than one full screen of emails. When there are more than that in the TODO folder, you need to immediately schedule enough time to address the emails that it contains.

Getting There

The first problem in getting to a zero inbox is what to do with everything that is in your inbox today. My recommendation is to do two things.

  1. Schedule a BIG chunk of time to clean your email up (when I first did this – I think that I spent maybe 4 hours).
    1. Step 1: Delete all of the garbage in your inbox. Things like meeting invitations, system-generated emails, etc. Select all of these and delete them.
    2. Step 2: Find emails from projects that you are no longer working on. If you think about it a bit, these likely come from a small number of people, have something in the title or body and/or came during a certain period of time. Select all of these and copy them into a folder for the project. Don’t worry if you got them in the right folder, you are unlikely to go back to them, and if you do, just use search broadly across the project folders.
    3. Step 3: Clean up emails on current projects. Search for topics on your current projects, select these, and copy them into the appropriate folder.
    4. Step 4: Look for ways to file older emails. If you have not done anything with the email for a couple of months, you are not going to do anything with it, save it to a folder. It almost doesn’t matter where since you can use search to find it.
    5. Step 5: Make one pass at the mail that is left (reasonably new). Brutally file everything that you can. Don’t read it all, just read the title, look at the person that sent it, maybe open it and skim the first paragraph – then make the decision to file or keep. You should be thinking 80% file, 20% keep.
    6. Step 6: You now have real work to do and hopefully not too many emails to work on. Skim these emails and take the appropriate action – delete, save, take action.
  2. After spending that big chunk of time, you need to be down to 0 emails. I think that you have a small bit of discretion here. There will be some emails that need your attention and will take time. These need to go into the new special folder that I mentioned above called TODO.
    • This folder must not have more than one screen full of emails. If the list gets longer than fit on one screen, you need to schedule the time to clean up your TODO folder.

Congratulations, you did it.


Now comes the hard part – maintaining zero emails in your inbox at least once a day AND keeping your TODO folder down to no more than a screen full.

The way you do this is to schedule time when you will work on your email. During this time, you operate as follows.

  • Open each of the new emails in your inbox and quickly skim the contents
  • Immediately, without looking at any other emails, decide one of three things
    1. Delete
    2. Save in a folder
    3. Keep
  • As a rough guide, assume these are 1/3, 1/3, 1/3. If you can do better on the first two, then great. But do not fall into the trap of keeping more than 1/3 of the incoming emails.
  • Now go back and take a second pass.
    • Open the email and decide if it can be handled in only a few minutes. If it can, take care of it and then file or delete it.
    • If not, move it into the TODO folder. Note that for this model to work, you need to minimize the number of emails that you move into the TODO folder. Deal with as many as possible during this second pass.
  • The last thing to do is review the number in your TODO folder. If there is more than a screen full, you need to schedule the time to clean this up asap.


This sounds reasonably simple. But it is not. Why not? It is hard to stick to the structure of the section above. If you fall behind, getting back on track seems daunting. In reality, it just takes practice.

When you do fall behind, don’t give up. You just need to focus and do either a small version of Getting to Inbox 0 or it is a bit more complicated version of Maintaining Inbox 0. All that you need to do is schedule the time.

What Does it Feel Like

Inbox 0 is liberating.

I can’t tell you how good it feels when you remove that last email and your inbox is empty. The first time this happened to me I thought – “What do I do now?”, like I didn’t have a bunch of other things that I needed to be spending time on.

I try to have zero in my inbox at least twice a day. Once in the morning (after I have spent my time being creative:)) and once before I leave for home. I feel significantly less stress during the day as I know I got myself caught up. And even less stress when I leave at night!

Tips and Tricks

Here is a list of tips and tricks that support the discussion above.

  • Don’t leave the email client open. Or a better way to say this is – disable email notifications!
  • Process email only a few times a day (on the order of 2 or 3).
  • During your first pass, delete about 1/3, file about 1/3, and keep the remaining for the second pass.
  • Complete the second pass to handle the remaining emails either by reading, resolving, or adding to the TODO folder.
  • Set aside time as needed to deal with the email in the TODO folder
  • Be concise in your email, ideally resolving in a way that you do not need to receive additional emails related to the same topic.
  • Refrain from copying lots of people on email, and ask others to do the same.

See Also

Limit Time Spent – Avoid Parkinson’s Law

Finding Work Life Balance


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *