As a busy CEO and founder, I receive hundreds of emails every day and send around 50 myself. Yet at the end of the day, my inbox is empty. I follow a principle called Inbox Zero. No, I don’t have an assistant managing my emails. And no, Inbox Zero is not just a dream — it can be done.
Why should you keep your email inbox empty? The benefits are many:
- You won’t miss an important email again when you use the Inbox Zero method.
- You won’t leave people hanging because you’ll respond to each email in a timely manner.
- You won’t become a bottleneck in your organization.
- You won’t feel stressed about thousands of emails in your inbox.
- You respect others by responding to them promptly.
- You’re able to feel great knowing that you have nothing else to do so you can get on with more creative, fulfilling tasks.
Here’s a list of my email habits that made this possible. I basically use the traditional Inbox Zero approach and add a slight twist.
Start with almost any email provider.
This guide assumes you are using Gmail, but the same rules may be adapted to any email client as long as they have similar features to Gmail’s “Send and Archive” and “Auto-advance” functionality.
I know a number of people who keep every email they receive in their inbox. Their inbox looks like a Twitter stream. This is not a dependable system. You might be reviewing your list and then something comes up, such as a phone call or a meeting. At that point, you’re likely to lose track of your progress, which leaves you with two options: Review all recent emails for the day one by one or just go with the flow. The former can be too time consuming. The latter is the reason why many people I know will also let many emails go unanswered or completely forget to do important tasks. Not because they are rude or disorganized, but because they have bad email habits.
One horror story that comes to mind is a former co-worker that simply let every email pile up in his inbox. And this inbox had thousands of email in it, and 150 new emails arriving every day. Few were read, and a handful were actually responded to. If he wanted to find any email, he would scroll through this massive inbox and do a quick read of all of the subject lines. Finding needles in haystacks was easier.
Here are seven important steps to achieve Inbox Zero:
1. Start with zero.
If you are just starting out with Inbox Zero, the first step is to declare email bankruptcy. Archive every email in your inbox. I realize this is blasphemous in many companies, however you need to start with an empty inbox. This guide will not help you if you have 10,000 emails in your inbox. Just zero it out and start fresh.
2. Process emails strictly in the same order.
This step requires discipline. When you process your emails, start with the oldest message and work your way to the most recent. Do not skip any email! Never look at your complete email list and, even worse, pick one from it.
To accomplish this, change your Gmail “Auto-advance” settings so that when you archive or reply, it shows the next email instead of going back to the email list.
Next, enable the “Send and Archive” button on your email replies.
Why start with the oldest entries? When you start with the newest emails, you might get stuck in a reply treadmill with other people who answer emails quickly. You don’t want to get into a loop where you constantly reply to the most recent emails and people reply back at you. You are basically chatting at this point and your email productivity will go down the drain. When that happens, you might waste hours while your oldest messages go completely untouched.
Do not use email like a chat app. Do not get into chats with your friends or colleagues in your email inbox. The most recent email should be answered only after your inbox is completely processed. If you need to chat, use a tool like Slack. Or, pick up the phone and talk. Email is not the place for it.
Unfortunately, Gmail does not have a method to sort emails from oldest to newest. My solution: When I open my emails, I find the oldest post in my inbox, click on it and start processing emails one by one. Since my inbox is set up to advance to the next post, I end up processing emails in the same order that emails are received.
3. Reply or archive.
The first rule of Inbox Zero is your email inbox is not a storage place. All emails in your inbox should be processed right away. Either by replying or by archiving.
What about things that will take a long time? Some things may require waiting for a few hours or a few days, or you might be waiting on an answer from someone. In such cases, move the task to a separate to-do list. If the email contents are required for the task, just copy the subject of the email to your to-do list, so you can easily copy it back again and search for the exact email in your email archive to process it.
4. Just do it, now.
If an email requires an action that will take a few minutes, just do it right now. Do not copy it to a to-do list. Do not keep it in your inbox. Just do it. If you need to make a payment, just do it right now. If you need to send feedback to a colleague, do it right away. Processing a list in a strict order is a great way to solve procrastination.
Sometimes when I know I am procrastinating on a task, I will send myself an email. This forces me to complete that task since I am very strict about maintaining Inbox Zero.
5. Use keyboard shortcuts.
While processing emails, my hand is usually on top of the “E” key on the keyboard, which archives the entries in Gmail. If I decide to reply to a thread, I click on the “R” key instead. I will occasionally use the “F” key to forward emails. Those are the only Gmail shortcuts I use. I don’t think you need to know any other shortcuts. You can always use your mouse for all other actions. But these three keyboard shortcuts will help you keep your email processing much smoother.
6. Use email filters.
If there are emails that you do not read, either unsubscribe from them or use automated email filters to archive them automatically. Depending on the amount of email you receive, this can potentially save you hours.
7. Once you reach zero, close your emails.
While trying to do any creative work, you should avoid looking at your email. So, process your emails, empty your inbox, and most importantly — close the email app. Move onto critical work with the knowledge that you do not have to worry about your emails for a while.
Disable any email notifications that pop up when you receive a new message. They can become very distracting and will drain your productivity, attention span, and energy all day long.
You can always open your emails a few hours later, process your inbox again, then go back to more fulfilling work. The goal is to condition yourself to stop worrying about emails all day long. You should be controlling your inbox, not the other way around.
Keep it productive. Keep it sane. And, most importantly, keep it zero.