Five Steps to Reach Inbox Zero

Five Steps to Reach Inbox ZeroYou know that little red circle on the Mail app on your phone? Mine indicates three new messages right now. And there are 12 emails I’ve already read, still sitting in my inbox. I’m not sure what it says about me, but I kinda like it when those numbers are low. I know plenty of people who have hundreds of unread emails and thousands of read emails in their inbox. And it doesn’t seem to bother them at all. But I guess I’m a little bit of a control freak, so I like my digital world neat and tidy.

I think it’s because I view my inbox as a “To Do” List. If there are too many emails in my inbox demanding my attention, it stresses me out. So I’m diligent about dealing with email on a regular basis, and not letting it clutter my mind.

I don’t know how many emails you receive each day, but a study by The Radicati Group found that business professionals receive an average of 122 emails per day. That sounds about right to me. And I typically send between 30-50 emails on a workday. That’s a lot of email!

So how do I keep my inbox clean? Well, I don’t have a proprietary method or anything, but I have a few habits that I think help me stay on top of the email clutter.

Five Steps to Reach Inbox Zero:

1. Set aside time for email. I typically spend 10-12 hours a week in email (I learned this helpful little tidbit by using RescueTime to track my productivity for a few months). So that’s about 2 hours per day. The trick is to batch that time in chunks throughout the day, rather than keeping your email open all day and reading/responding to each message as it comes in. So I typically check email when I first get to my desk, and then I shut it down for an hour or so to do some work. I don’t have any notifications that would alert me to new email, so I’m not tempted to check. Then I open my email again every hour or so throughout the day. I used to check it again in the evenings but I stopped doing that so that I could really keep my business and personal worlds separated. (And if I do, for some reason, check email in the evening and respond to a message, I keep the response in draft mode and send it in the morning. That’s because I don’t want clients or colleagues to expect me to answer emails in the evenings.)

2. Take immediate action. During the 20 minutes or so that I am checking email, I try to take action on every new email. If it’s something simple, I respond immediately and then file or delete the email. If it is something that requires action later, I either flag it, file it or move it to my calendar as a task for later. If it’s spam or something that I simple don’t need, I delete it immediately. The delete button is your friend! (0h, and one more thing… don’t give in to the self-imposed pressure to respond to everything. If someone sends an email with information you need, it’s ok to simply file the email without replying. I know you want to thank them, but ask yourself if that person would rather have one less email instead.)

3. Use folders and filters that make sense to you. My friend Amy taught me to file my email based on the required action – such as “To Read” or “To Respond.” I found that helpful but I also still maintain folders for each major project or client and a folder for each member of my team. I also have folders for things like “Coupons,” “Tax Info,” and “Travel.” I immediately move appropriate emails into these folders for future reference. And I often use filters (or email rules) to automatically send certain emails to folders and bypass the inbox entirely – which means I don’t have to see the Athleta sale email unless I really want to!

4. Unsubscribe regularly. It seems everywhere I go – on line or in real life – businesses are asking for my email address. I think twice before I hand over my email address – I ask myself, “Do I really want an email from this business?” But inevitably, I end up subscribing to email lists I don’t want or need. So as I’m sifting through my email, instead of deleting or filing that email from Khol’s, I’ll click the little “unsubscribe” link at the bottom and put an end to the madness (until my next moment of weakness, that is). You can also use a service like to unsubscribe to a bunch of subscriptions at once.

5. Create a junk email address. Another little trick I suggest is to use a separate email address for all of your online shopping and subscriptions. Then use your email filter or rules to have all the emails coming to that address automatically sent to a folder that you can check periodically. While you are at it – make sure you have a good spam filter in your email application.

For the record, I don’t apply the same effort to messages I receive via text or social media. That’s because I use those tools for communications that are personal and/or urgent. So I typically respond to urgent messages right away and personal messages whenever I have time. I don’t even bother trying to keep up with Facebook or Twitter messages. I’m sure I’ve missed important information, but I like to think of those channels as social conversations, so I don’t feel the pressure to respond to everything – or to even view it.

I’m curious, how do you keep your email from overtaking your life? Are you an Inbox Zero person or are you ok with collecting thousands of emails? I’d love to know how you manage your digital messages!


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