The Secret No One Tells You About Inbox Zero

Photo by  Kristina Flour  on  Unsplash

You’ve heard people talk of this mythical “inbox 0” before. And I bet you’ve reacted in one of 2 ways: with a snort and a scoff because you think email diligence is a waste of time, or with a feeling of deep envy.

Regardless of how you react instinctually, however, you are likely to think that inbox 0 is not actually possible, at least not without devoting the bulk of your work hours to email.

(And if you haven’t in fact, heard of inbox 0, it’s this: you process your email down to 0 - or close to it - each time you check email.)

I’m here to tell you that not only is it possible, it doesn’t have to take too long, and it’ll make you feel in control of the onslaught of incoming data we all face daily.

Often, when I start working with my clients, they have inboxes that range from a few hundred to tens of thousands. Many of them claim that they just ignore that number, and that it’s not stressful for them. But as soon as they get to inbox 0, they tend to feel a strong sense of relief and realize that they were, in fact, stressed out by that little number up there in the corner. If you’ve got 15,000 emails in your inbox, you just know you’re never gonna get through it all, so you don’t even bother. Email becomes an afterthought. You miss things. You think: “Inbox 0? That’s not even in the cards for me; why bother?”

But you can do it.

Do you want to know the secret?

When you first decide you are going to get to inbox 0, the way that you do it is not to process each individual email in that backlog. Instead, you pick a date in the past by which you are realistically not going to be processing email anyway (3 days? 1 week? 2 weeks?) and archive everything earlier than that date.

Now, I hear you saying “But I might miss something!” and to that I say, “you’ve already missed it”. Were you really going to be going back farther than a week or two to process your email? Be honest with yourself; just pull the cord.

Now, once you’ve archived all that old stuff, the number in the corner will be something that you can reasonably get through in a couple of hours. If not, then dig deeper and archive more. (If you don’t have a lot of time, and you’re feeling brave, just archive everything prior to today.)

The key here is that archiving is not deleting. Most people have this sense of equivalent anxiety about both the massive amount of unread email they have in their inboxes AND with the prospect of letting it go. When you archive, you can still search all these old emails. They’re not gone. They’re just not front and center, reminding you of how backlogged you are. (And remember, going forward, you aren’t going to be backlogged!) Unlike a lot of things in life, you can have it both ways here.

Now that you’ve got a reasonable number up there in the corner, schedule a couple of hours to get it down to actual 0 using the following framework:

  • Archive/Tag/File — For informational emails that you don’t need to respond to.

  • Respond — If you can respond, just do it.

  • Add to your task list — If the email is a project or task you need to do, or you just don’t have the info required to answer it yet, add the task to your task list and respond to let the sender know when they should expect a full reply.

Right now, as I write this, I’m at inbox 10; and I’ll be processing email again in a few hours and will get it back down to 0ish at that time. Email doesn’t stress me out. And I don’t spend very much time processing it or thinking about it (maybe an hour a day).

This is the first in a 3 part series about email management. Stay tuned and I’ll help you get there, too!

Staying at Inbox 0-ish

The Secret to Sanity (and Better Sleep)