How to Get to Inbox Zero

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By Ewen Finser

Last Updated on May 26, 2024 by Ewen Finser

If you are trying to get to the proverbial “inbox zero” but aren’t sure where to start, this guide is for you.

As a busy business owner, I’ve struggled with getting a handle on my various inboxes for YEARS. At any given time, I had thousands of messages, some starred, re-forwarded to myself, unread to stay visible (but never acted on).

Over time, this “email debt” started to add up mentally. Earlier this year, I started down the path of inbox optimization and this led me to the “inbox zero” concept.

Now my disclaimer is that I have different inboxes and not every one is at zero just yet, BUT I have accomplished this with a few already… thanks to the methods and tools mentioned down below.

So here’s how I would go about getting started TOWARDS inbox zero…

Define the Problem

This doesn’t make most of the lists I’ve seen, but getting to “inbox zero” means different things to different people. I like to start by asking myself. “what is the cost of NOT having inbox zero”?

In my case, distraction, mental switch costs, and actual time spent filtering email was a real drag on productivity.

But for some, clutter is a default status (in general) that doesn’t bother them in the same way. Don’t go to inbox zero because some GURU said so.

Do it because it makes YOU more happy and productive!

Create a Priority Framework

I cannot stress enough how important this step is. Without getting clear on WHAT is important, it’s almost impossible to take any of the next steps. This is actually – mentally – the biggest block for me.

There are many different ways to do it, but here’s how I did it. When thinking about what’s important, I came up with these categories:

  • Urgent / Action Immediately
  • Important / Action Today
  • Important / Reference
  • Not Important / Archive
  • Not Important / Unsubscribe

If you look at your current inbox, how many fit any of these categories? A trick for me (more on this below) is to create folders to move “action” items out of the main inbox and somewhere else.

This way there’s a “action” inbox that is separate from a sorting inbox. Otherwise, I get incredibly distracted trying to toggle between the two in one inbox.

I use the term “action” because a response may not be needed directly. It could be creating a project management task, delegating to a team member, or just routing to the right person.

Unsub Bonanza

Nobody likes to clean the bathroom. Sometimes it just has to get done.

This is how I feel about inbox hygiene. Sometimes you just need to carve out a morning or afternoon and JUST focus on unsubscribing from ALL of the crap you never open.

Think about it this way: If you haven’t opened an email from a specific sender in 3+ months, it’s time to unsub. You can always re-subscribe later if it truly impacts your life!

Doing this just once or twice a year will do wonders for your inbox overload.

Folders & Labels

If the thought of just having emails sitting in your general folder gets to you, consider a simple framework like this:

Action > Waiting > Processed

Similar to a Kanban board in project management, this is an easy way to route things and get results.

While this first step is helpful, I still need to to (personally) tie some sort of urgency status to it. There are some items like newsletters or shareholder letters that I want to read later (usually a designated time in the evening) but aren’t something that needs to be actioned in the same way a work issue might.

If I start to notice some patterns like this with a common theme, I’ll just create a separate folder for them and even custom RULES to auto-route to specific folders.

This is a good guide on how to create custom filters in Gmail.

I also like to reference my original prioritization framework to help here by adding a “Reference” folder for important items like project proposals, guides, instructions, directions, or something else that I may need to reference later but don’t need to action AND don’t want to get lost in a “processed folder”.

Software & Services

Initially I was hesitant to spend money on software to help achieve inbox zero, but when I started inventorying “time spent”, the trade-off became obvious…

There’s an emerging class of excellent tools and software that do the heavy lifting for you. I personally have settled on SaneBox after trying a slew of options, but here are some names to check out in this category:

Also Read: Email Cleaning Tools Guide.

Note: not all of these are expressly about getting to “inbox zero”, but they are focused on email organization, filtering, and getting rid of unwanted emails. In other words, they make getting to inbox zero easier.

Why Go with SaneBox?

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Is Inbox Zero What you Really Need?

I personally love the feeling of having zero messages to respond to and aggressively filtering what comes through my “distraction zone”. But there ARE other ways to get email productivity boosts.

These are some other ideas to consider if inbox zero isn’t quite cutting it for you:

  • Scheduled Email Deliveries (pausing emails): There are a variety of simple services that just eliminate the distraction of constant inbox checking. This may be a more effective strategy to deal with inbox overload and/or a good intermediate step until you have inbox zero. Some tools to look for here are SaneBox, Mailman, and Boomerang.
  • Email Organization: Sometimes it’s less about having unread or unprocessed emails and more about having a place to put them, or just having the important emails in one place. Check out my companion guide on how to organize your email for more action steps.
  • Virtual / Personal Assistants: This might seem like overkill and too expensive, but there are actually a variety of excellent services for finding overseas VAs who can handle the task of sorting, scheduling, and even responding to emails that fit certain formats. Services to check here are Zirtual and RemoteCoworker.

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