Inbox Zero takes the core principles of the Getting Things Done personal productivity system and adapts it for email management. As in GTD, Inbox Zero emphasizes that inboxes—especially email inboxes—are meant to be emptied, not used for long-term storage.
If you allow things to pile up in your inboxes—physical or virtual—they become a constant reminder of all the stuff you think you have to do. Besides being a distraction, a bursting email inbox is a pretty ineffective way to figure out what you ought to be working on.
When it comes to email, you should empty your inbox regularly by sorting its contents into action-oriented folders and ruthlessly archiving or deleting anything you don’t need to see again.
Inbox Zero is the brainchild of Merlin Mann, who adapted the Getting Things Done system to email. He did not entirely invent the concept, though. Well before I ever heard of Merlin Mann or Inbox Zero, there was a Time Matters white paper, of all things, recommending much the same system.1 If you haven’t seen it before, you should watch his “Inbox Zero” talk at Google here:
It’s a one-hour video, but you should make time for it. Inbox Zero, like GTD, is basically “advanced common sense.” When you watch Mann’s presentation, it will probably click for you, and you might even get excited about sorting your email.
The video is all you need to learn the system, but Mann’s posts about Inbox Zero are available on his website, 43 Folders.
The basic idea is to create four folders for your email:2
- Do Now
- To Read
At least once a day, sort everything in your email inbox into those folders. Don’t open an email without sorting it into a folder. While you are at it, ruthlessly archive or delete anything you don’t need to keep staring at when you open your email.
Processing Your Inbox
Inbox Zero is about figuring out what you have to do and sorting the rest into useful places. You don’t have to explicitly follow Merlin Mann’s framework, but it is a useful starting point. After years of practicing Inbox Zero, here is the most efficient way I have found to process an email inbox.
First, Archive and Delete
Whenever you check your email or switch to Outlook or Gmail (or whatever you use for email), process it before you do anything else. Start by archiving and deleting. Archiving or deleting is the most important part of processing your email inbox.
The majority of most email is unimportant, and there is no reason to save it. So start by deleting everything you can.
Anything that you need or want to hold onto, but that you don’t have to act on, you can archive. In Outlook or any other mail software, just create an Archive folder and move thing there when you are done with them. In Gmail, just use the Archive button.
If you want to use a folder for each client or matter, you can. You can do this, but I think sorting into multiple archive folders is a waste of time. If you need something from your archives, it is easier to search for it. Periodically or when you close a file, just search for all the names and email addresses linked to the file, and convert everything to a PDF you can save to the file.
Regardless, if you do create client folders, they are still part of your archives. So are folders like Bills & Receipts or Save3
Process the Rest
Once you have archived and deleted everything you can, start processing the rest.
If anything that’s left looks like something you can do immediately in less than two minutes or so, like a quick reply or forwarding with a note, go ahead and do it. Just get it out of the way. Apart from this two-minute drill, focus on sorting emails into your Do Now,4 Later, Waiting, and To Read folders. Don’t do anything else now.
Getting Started with Inbox Zero
Let’s say Merlin Mann and I have convinced you that Inbox Zero is worthwhile. Right now, you probably have hundreds or thousands of messages sitting in your inbox. Here is how to get from thousands of messages to zero messages right now, and any time you open up your email only to find hundreds or thousands of messages.
If you are like most people, you probably have a few things in your inbox that represent things you can do now, a few things in progress, and a lot of other stuff. You could sift through all that other stuff and file it all carefully, but I don’t recommend it.
This first time we get to Inbox Zero, do things backward. Find all the emails that represent something you could do now, later, that you need to read, or that you are waiting on, and file those. Now that you have everything you actually need to keep track of filed away where you won’t lose it, do a quick Ctrl+A (or Cmd+A for Mac users), and archive everything else.
You’re done. If you want to go through your archive later, go ahead. But don’t waste time sifting slowly through everything. Get to Inbox Zero as quickly as possible, and make it your daily (at least) discipline from now on.
Here’s a Shortcut
If Inbox Zero sounds good in theory but you are too busy to spend time learning a full-on system for managing your email, here is a simple way to get your email under control that you can start doing as soon as you are finished reading this page.
To get your email under control, you don’t need to read books, watch a video, buy anything, download anything, or get a new app. All you have to do is start using something that is already built into your email.
One Simple Rule
Star/flag a message if you have to do something with it.
Seriously, that’s it. Take a few minutes right now to go through your inbox, select every message that represents something you have to do, and add a star or flag to them, depending on your email provider (they are effectively the same thing, but Gmail, for example, uses stars, while Outlook and Mail.app call them flags).
To add a star/flag, you can click on the icon in the message list or while viewing the message, or you can just use a keyboard shortcut:
- Gmail: S5
- Outlook and Outlook.com: INSERT
- Mail.app: Cmd+Shift+L
When you are done, you can archive everything left in your inbox if you want to. But even if you leave everything in your inbox, you can improve your productivity.
Your Email To-Do List
Now go to your Starred or Flagged folder/label. From now on, that will be your to-do list. Check things off by removing the star or flag.
Going forward, don’t look at new emails in your inbox any longer than it takes to act on them immediately in about two minutes or less, or apply a flag or star. Your inbox is not your to-do list; only flagged or starred emails represent to-dos.
Even if you do not keep any other to-do lists, the to-do list in your email app can help keep you on track. In fact, you can use email as your to-do list for everything if you email tasks to yourself.6 Emailing tasks to yourself is an easy way to add a task to your to-do list from your phone, too.
Isn’t working from a list a lot easier than looking at everything that has been building up in your inbox for weeks, months, or years?
I couldn’t find the actual white paper, but <a href="https://www.activepractice.com/1234tips/inbox-settings.html">here</a> is a reference to keeping your Time Matters inbox clear. ↩
Mann uses different labels—<strong>Delegate</strong>, <strong>Respond</strong>, <strong>Defer</strong>, <strong>Do</strong>—but they amount to basically the same thing. I use <strong>Do Now</strong> in place of <strong>Do</strong> and <strong>Respond</strong> since I don’t see a good reason to separate them. I use <strong>Do Later</strong> in place of <strong>Defer</strong> since it is a more helpful label to me. <strong>Waiting</strong> contains messages I have delegated to someone else, along with messages for which I am waiting on a response. <strong>To Read</strong> contains messages I need to read or consider carefully before I can act on them or archive them. ↩
G Suite lets you set an auto-delete timeline. For example, you can automatically delete all messages older than 10 years. You can also exempt a label (<strong>Save</strong>, for example) from auto-deletion, which is why I have a <strong>Save</strong> folder. ↩
The <strong>Do Now</strong> folder is for anything you<em> can</em> start working on immediately, even if you are not going to. ↩
If this does not work the first time you try, you need to turn keyboard shortcuts turned on. To do this, just go to <strong>Settings</strong> and make sure the radio button next to <strong>Keyboard shortcuts on</strong> is selected. If you have to select it, scroll down and click the <strong>Save Changes</strong> button. ↩
If your to-do list gets unmanageable this way, look into <a href="https://lawyerist.com/blog/gtd-for-lawyers/">Getting Things Done</a>. It may take some time to learn the system, but you will save so much time after you learn GTD that it is totally worthwhile. ↩