How to Reach Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero mailbox

While we’re still fresh in the new year, I wanted to impart some serious secret sauce for organizing your life — financial and otherwise. In all reality, it’s not much of a secret. Or a sauce. So I’ve basically lost all my credibility in the very first paragraph. It’s been around awhile, but I’m still amazed at how few people have tried it, let alone heard of it. So if this is new to you, buckle up!

I probably don’t really need to explain what Inbox Zero actually entails, but I will for those who suspect its a covert military operation. Inbox Zero is bringing the number of emails in your inbox to zero. Not the number of unread emails. Not the number of forwarded emails from your conspiracy theorist uncle. ZERO EMAILS, PERIOD. So are you sufficiently freaked out? Good.

Current State of Your Inbox

Think about your real mailbox. You know, the one you where you get your real-life mail delivered. Do you just leave stuff in there? Do you look at junk mail from Publisher’s Clearinghouse and then just leave it there? Do you open bills, read them, put them back in their envelope, draw a yellow star on it, and then put it back in the mailbox? No. But if you do, I bet your mailman wants to choke you — watch your back.

Take a look at your inbox right now. You’ve probably figured out some method for organizing your emails: labels, stars, marking as unread. I used to use a really intricate system of all three. But as soon as a starred email slipped off of the first page, it was as good as gone. And so I’d forget to respond to a friend about meeting for lunch, or canceling my 3-month trial subscription to Nerf Gunners Magazine (note: this is a fictitious magazine title, but I’m pretty sure I’d renew my subscription if it were real). As a former label-er, star-er, and mark-as-unread-er (and current receipt hoarder), I’m here to tell you: there’s a better way.

Why is Inbox Zero So Great?

Because your inbox will no longer be a source of anxiety. In fact, your inbox will become your go-to destination for when you need to get things done. My inbox is the most important to-do list I manage. If I want to see what bills need to be paid, I look at my inbox. If I want to see who I still need to write back, I look at my inbox. If I need a reminder to preorder tickets to a concert, I look at my inbox. If you can’t already tell, I now enjoy looking at my inbox.

My Inbox Zero

Who wouldn’t want to look at that all day?

So how do I start?

Great question, hypothetical questioner. There are a lot of different methods, but I’ll offer two.

  1. The easiest way — Select all of your emails, deselect any that still require action, and then press “Archive.” Poof. Your inbox is cleared. And the best part is, you can still access all of those emails in your All Mail folder.
  2. The OCD way — This is the route I chose. I went through my entire inbox (over 50,000 messages), labeled any emails of some significance (account information, gooey sentimental love letters, etc.) and then archived everything.

It was actually a fun blast from the past to peruse emails from 2004 when Gmail was freshy fresh. But if I had to do it all over, I’d probably save the 30+ hours over a few months and just archive everything in one fell swoop. It might take a little courage at first, but so long you press Archive, all of those emails are safe and sound.

So What Do I Do with New Email?

Whenever I receive a new email, I do one of four actions:

  1. Dispose — Is it junk? Mark as spam or delete. Is it something worth holding on to, but requires no action? Archive it.
  2. Delegate — Is it something that your spouse or coworker is better equipped to handle? Forward it.
  3. Respond — Is it an email you can resolve immediately? Reply, and then archive it. (Or use awesome tip #4 from NeonFresh)
  4. Delay — Is it a reminder to pick something up later in the week? Is it an email that requires a thoughtful response that you can’t tackle right now? Leave it in your inbox, and then archive it after action has been taken.

By allowing myself the option to delay, it does mean that my inbox isn’t always at zero. I’m not a total purist on this point. But I also don’t let it get out of control. On any given day, I’ll have between 0 to 10 emails in my inbox. I try to clear it out by day’s end. But it’s not uncommon for certain bill reminders to sit in my inbox for a few days. So while the system might be called Inbox Zero, I disregard the letter of the law and opt for what works best for me.


I’ve been a devout Inbox Zero-er for three years now. I’ve helped Joanna and a handful others make the jump. Needless to say, it’s something I’m passionate about. It’s helped me better manage my finances, personal correspondence, and career. I no longer stress about forgetting to email so-and-so, because it’s staring me right in the face every time I login.

Despite all my praise for it, I know it might not be for everyone. Totally fine. But as my good friend Ben Harper sings (in a song about “Burning one down”… I’ll let you guess what he’s talking about), “Before you knock it, try it first.”

Are you an Inbox Zero devotee? Why or why not? Are you happy with your current inbox organization system?


(Original photo by sysop1021)

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  • Reply Pauline January 3, 2013 at 8:38 am

    I am down from almost 5000 to under 2000 emails since new year, lots of work but it does feel good!

    • Reply Johnny January 3, 2013 at 12:20 pm

      Woohoo! That’s awesome for just three days. It’s a huge undertaking, but if you do it once, and maintain it, it can really pay off. Keep chugging.

  • Reply Renee S January 3, 2013 at 9:58 am

    I thought Inbox Zero was a great new addition to gmail that I could download and it would label and archive my messages FOR me! You tricked me!!! I do Inbox Zero, but if I don’t do it everyday, then my inbox just explodes again.

    PS When is your freaking baby going to be here?!

    • Reply Johnny January 3, 2013 at 12:27 pm

      Hahaha. I wish I could have been the bearer of a magical robot plugin that did all that dirty work, but no dice. You hit the nail on the head with keeping it managed on a daily basis. It’s tough, but worth it.

      I also wish there was a magic download that would tell our freaking baby to hurry it up!

  • Reply Brett @ wstreetstocks January 3, 2013 at 9:58 am

    Great post! I’ve actually been trying to cut down on the number of emails that I send. Inbox zero would take a while for me to get used too though.

    • Reply Johnny January 3, 2013 at 12:31 pm

      Definitely takes some time to get used to. But it’s an investment that will end up saving you time (and missed appointments, bills, replies, etc.) in the long run.

      You’re probably already aware of it, but Canned Responses in Gmail is a great tool for trimming down time spent on writing emails if your responses are often similar in nature.

  • Reply Mary @ XOX, Mary January 3, 2013 at 10:28 am

    I always, I mean always keep my inbox at zero. I always check messages via iPhone and I absolutely hate seeing seeing that little red circle on the mail icon. Does that bug anyone else?

    I make folders for everything. Phone bill, Chase Bank, Cable, etc. and just tuck them away after I have dealth with them. If its a bill, I don’t tuck it in its proper folder until I have paid it. I check my email religiously so it helps remind me of what needs to be done.

    • Reply Johnny January 3, 2013 at 12:36 pm

      Nice, Mary! We totally see eye-to-eye. And I would also consider myself a red circle hater.

      This year, I would like to get better at only checking my mail a few times a day so I don’t feel totally chained to my phone and inbox. There’s got to be a good balance between keeping an inbox maintained and checking every five minutes, right?

  • Reply Grayson @ Debt Roundup January 3, 2013 at 10:42 am

    I always check my emails and do something with the email. All of the read emails are still in my inbox because I don’t care for archiving. Either way, I still don’t have unread emails just sitting around. Some people I know have unread emails from about a year ago. My boss always has about 500 unread emails at all times. I would go insane with that many unreads.

    • Reply Johnny January 3, 2013 at 12:52 pm

      Whatever works, so long each email is addressed and dealt with. Reading that last sentence kinda makes me sound like a prison officer or something.

      Funny, my old boss had like 2000 unread emails at all times. If there was something urgent to email him about, you had to use a certain number of asterisks in the subject line. So essentially an inbox within an inbox. Not the brightest.

  • Reply Chris January 3, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    I keep all my work emails. I also use Outlook. I wish my users would read this blog though because I’m checking our Exchange Server now and some of the users are pushing 5GB of email. I use Outlook rules to organize my emails. I have about 15 folders with different names/organizations on it with explicit rules to send all mail ending in to a folder named “Nerf Warfare”. I keep my emails handy (I should just archive them) so that I can search through them. I like to think of my email as the database to my life. Sort of like Evernote. My personal email though has like 3000 emails, and I never really use it for anything special. It’s sort of like a spam trap.

    • Reply Johnny January 3, 2013 at 12:58 pm

      I use Outlook for work, as well. I’m still partial to Gmail, but I do prefer the folder organization and simplicity of rules to Gmail’s labels and filters.

      I’m happy to see you’re a fellow Nerf Gunners subscriber.

  • Reply John S @ Frugal Rules January 3, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    I’ll go through my emails several times a day as I am usually getting 40-50 per day on a slow day. I hate leaving them in my inbox and do tend to get a bit OCD with them. I have different folders that I’ll put specific ones in once handled. For some sick reason I get some pleasure on getting the inbox as low as possible.

    • Reply Johnny January 3, 2013 at 1:01 pm

      If you’re like me, “several times a day” means… oh, 20 or 30 times, right? 🙂 Seriously, I need to get that under control.

      I think the pleasure for me is rooted in the idea that even though I can’t control how many people/spambots email me, I CAN control how I deal with them.

  • Reply Rob January 3, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    I try to keep a zero inbox. Having just retired as a former IT techie, I use email filters that I’ve set up to automatically sort and file my incoming emails for subsequent perusal, time permitting. I subscribe to the “work smart” not “work hard” theory whenever possible. 🙂

    • Reply Joanna January 3, 2013 at 11:18 pm

      You and Johnny are one in the same in your organizational email skills! I aspire for better email filters… Johnny has even gone so far as to add some filters for me! 🙂

  • Reply DC @ Young Adult Money January 3, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    I’ve given up on this. I get probably fifty to a hundred emails a day. I do what I can to delete the ones taht are not relevant and star ones that need action (I can’t always respond or label easily since I’m often on my phone, not on my computer), but it’s a losing battle. I don’t mind having thousands from the past because I’ve accepted that my inbox will enver be zero. My work email, on the other hand sometimes gets down to zero. I usually have at least a few important emails in my main inbox, though. I also have probably 50 folders…some with subfolders…that are housing my tens of thosands of “archived” emails :0 Welcome to my life.

    • Reply Joanna January 3, 2013 at 11:29 pm

      Never give up! At least one of your inboxes is zero. I’m the opposite, actually. My work email is a MESS! I’ve got to get on that. I’ve got an idea for a New Year’s resolution for you: simplify! 😉

  • Reply Brian January 3, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    That’s pretty hardcore… I just make sure that my inbox doesn’t overflow to a second page (so I think it is 50 message). Maybe I should go ahead and just knock the final 33 (as of this moment) into the archive…

    • Reply Joanna January 3, 2013 at 11:32 pm

      Oh, 50 isn’t bad at all. A few days ago I let my unread emails get to over 60! I felt so scandalous! But, seriously, I’m new to the Inbox Zero club, and I’m loving it. Organizational nerds unite!

  • Reply eemusings January 3, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Oh man, I am the WORST procrastinator and this spills over into my email management. I’m getting a little better at NOT clicking every new message at work and instead focusing on the task at hand (unless it looks like a really important email).

    • Reply Joanna January 3, 2013 at 11:37 pm

      Yes, there’s something so tempting about those unread emails in my inbox! Sometimes I have to just exit out of my email completely if I expect to get anything done! But then, like you mentioned, I get a really important email during that time and regret ever disconnecting from my inbox… it’s a vicious cycle!

  • Reply Dustin Small January 4, 2013 at 12:31 am

    I must be the anti-Inbox Zero-er! It would be great to do this but I am honestly the complete opposite… I have probably 100,000 emails in my inbox, all unfiled, unlabeled, and unorganized lol.

    • Reply Joanna January 4, 2013 at 3:07 pm

      Haha, I was right there with you just a few months ago. I’m too impatient to label everything, so I just archived EVERYTHING. That alone made a big difference… if you give it a try, I have a feeling you might like it! 🙂

  • Reply Canadian Budget Binder January 4, 2013 at 10:55 pm

    I have about 20 in mine right now but I filter everything. I read blog posts then comment then move that post to commented posts. If I don’t read the posts nor comment I move them to posts to read. At the end of the week I get rid of them all after I do my Weekly Personal Finance Reading list and move forward. I don’t hang on to emails if I don’t have to. I use a reader for some posts but not all as I don’t fancy it at the moment. I’m old school maybe. I always try to respond to emails as they come in or as fast as I can so they are not sitting around.

  • Reply Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin January 6, 2013 at 9:05 am

    Great post! I need this in my life right now. Whenever I’m working I usually close my gmail because it creates anxiety because I know I have 50+ new emails.

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  • Reply Justine March 28, 2013 at 11:18 am

    I have used this method in the past… but I missed a few days and all hell breaks loose and the next thing I know I’m staring at 600+ emails in my inbox. After seeing your post, I was motivated to try again. Currently down to 4 emails in both my work and personal inboxes!!! Woohoo!

    • Reply Johnny April 3, 2013 at 1:45 am

      Funny story, I had that same problem this morning and just now got around to whipping that thing into shape. Congrats on making it happen again!

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