The Inbox Zero Method: How to Take Control of Your Email

written by Dan Silvestre
Email Management

inbox zero method

Today, you’ll discover my simple method to achieve Inbox Zero once and for all. And I’ll also give you the tools you need to stay at inbox zero every day.

Do you ever feel like email is the biggest part of your job? Do you feel anxious each time you open your inbox?

You’re not alone.

I regularly ask people to tell me their biggest productivity struggle. One item rises above all the rest: email management. How to deal with email overload while never missing important conversations.

You see, a typical knowledge worker:

  • Gets on average 126 emails each day (​source​)
  • Looks at their inbox average of 36 times per hour
  • Takes approximately 16 minutes to refocus after handling emails (​source​)

It’s hard to do anything else productive when you’re drowning in email.

And that’s why you need my inbox zero method.

I’ve studied hundreds of productivity books​, articles, and videos. And changed and tweaked my system more than I care to admit. The road to my inbox zero method was not easy. It took years to develop.

But you get all that research condensed in this article.

You can get to inbox zero in the next 20 minutes, no matter if you have 100, 1000, or 100,000 unread emails.

It will help you manage your email inbox more efficiently and can save you 2-3 hours every day.

Let’s go.

What is the Inbox Zero Method?

Merlin Mann first introduced the inbox zero method on ​43 Folders​. It’s a system to keep your inbox organized and free of clutter.

But let’s make something clear:

The ultimate goal of the Inbox Zero method is not to maintain a constantly empty inbox. The “zero” in Inbox Zero isn’t about the number of emails in your inbox. It’s “the amount of time your brain is in your inbox.”

It’s about ensuring your inbox is working for you, rather than against you.

It’s a system to deal with the constant stream of emails without having to stress or put too much focus into it. To manage your email inbox more efficiently.

When you design an Inbox Zero, you’ve taken the first step to regain control of your email. And to the stress and anxiety your email inbox has been bringing you.

How to Achieve Inbox Zero Right Now

Unsubscribe from email lists or newsletters that you no longer need or want

The first step of the inbox zero method is to remove unnecessary clutter from your inbox.

Take a look at your inbox right now. What do you see?

I’m guessing newsletters, product updates, marketing emails, and random requests from strangers.

These emails are clogging your inbox and make it much harder to focus on important emails.

The easiest way to achieve inbox zero is to get rid of the inessentials first.

Unsubscribe from any newsletters or email lists that you no longer want to receive.

Here’s a simple trick to clean them faster:

Use your inbox’s search function and search for “unsubscribe.”

This will bring up most of the subscription emails you get. Now, go through them and unsubscribe from the ones you no longer want to receive.

But how do you decide which emails to delete?

For every email, ask yourself:

  • How often do I open this?
  • When I do open them, how often do I read them?
  • If I do read them, how often do I use them? Do I use them for work, save or forward them?

For any of the subscriptions that don’t meet the above criteria, hit unsubscribe. Do this for 5-10 minutes right now.

This first pass will cut most of your unwanted emails. All you’re left with now is an inbox full of emails you either want or need.

Only get the emails you want. When you want them.

A quieter inbox equals peace of mind.

Process your remaining emails to zero

Now, let’s process the rest of your email inbox to zero.

Don’t worry about anything older than 2 weeks. If you haven’t gotten around to it, you can safely ignore it. Select all emails older than 2 weeks and archive them.

Great. Now look at every email message of the last week and ask yourself:

“What’s the action here?”

With each email, you’re going to perform one of three actions:

  1. Reply
  2. Archive
  3. Delete

The goal of this first cleanup is not to reply to every single email. Not even most of them. Focus only on the most important messages.

If replying to an email takes less than two minutes, reply right now and move on.

If an email contains an action, add it to your task manager (more on this later). And if you aren’t the appropriate contact for the task, ​delegate it to the person​ who is.

When an email doesn’t need a reply or action on your part, you can either archive it or delete it. Will you need it for future reference? If yes, archive it. If not, delete it.

Because you’re only processing two weeks’ worth of email, this shouldn’t take more than one hour.

How to Stay at Inbox Zero

The 6 actions you need to take on every email

inbox zero 6 actions on every email

To stay at inbox zero, you need to hire your inbox to only do one job: an inbox tray where new inputs arrive.

You’re going to “delegate” all other functions you’ve been using your inbox for to other apps. These should integrate with your email client so everything runs smoothly.

Here are the 4 apps you need:

  1. Calendar app. For meetings and any time-specific events. I like Fantastical and Google Calendar.
  2. Task manager. Your digital to-do list. When an email contains an action, you add it to your task manager. I like Things and Todoist
  3. Notes app. For anything you want to save for future reference. I like Roam
  4. Read later app. To save online content you want to process later. I like Instapaper and Pocket

So let’s recap:

When an email requires a reply, do it right now.

If it doesn’t need your input, archive it.

For the remaining actions, hire other apps to help you.

Like this:

  • A colleague is setting up a meeting for a project kickstart. Schedule it to your calendar
  • Your boss is asking you to review a presentation. Add it to your task manager
  • You’ve read a fantastic piece with a few key insights you want to save. Save them in your notes app
  • A friend forwarded an amazing video on productivity. It goes into your read-later app

Setup an email schedule and stick to it

One key element of Inbox Zero is establishing and maintaining control of your inbox. And that starts with establishing when you check your inbox.

Email is not your job. In fact, email is just another to-do on your list.

Aim to batch process​ your inbox to zero 2-3 at specific times per day.

What’s the optimal time for your blocks?

Late morning works well. You have already completed some important tasks and are ready to help other people.

Reserve the other block for the end of the day/late evening. This will ensure nothing falls through the cracks before leaving the office.

Remember to have an end time for each email block. One ​Pomodoro cycle​ (25 minutes) per session is more than enough to process email.

Don’t let email spill out into other parts of the day. Schedule dedicated email time on your calendar. The rest of the time, you’re doing deep work​.

Avoid email checking otherwise to avoid context switching​. You’ll also lower your stress and become more productive.

Don’t stress over hitting Inbox Zero

I know the inbox zero method is the best way to manage email overwhelm. This comes from years of experience tweaking my system.

But don’t agonize over hitting inbox zero. Your email inbox shouldn’t be bringing you more anxiety.

Emails aren’t a never-ending task to be completed. No matter how many times you inbox zero, you’re bound to get a new email soon.

Sometimes, work will be more chaotic and it will take priority over hitting inbox zero. That’s life.

In those moments, focus only on your most important emails. The time-sensitive and urgent stuff that cannot wait. Those are the emails that matter.

And leave the rest sitting in your inbox. Knowing that when the storm calms down, you can come back to your inbox and hit zero again.

Tags:: Getting Things Done, GTD, Inbox Zero

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