Inbox Zero: How to Reach the Ultimate in Productivity

inbox zero - not!

Inbox Zero: How to Reach the Ultimate in Productivity

As I write this, I have zero emails in my inbox.

Not just zero unread emails, but zero emails. I’ve dealt with every inbound email ever sent to me… ever. I’ve taken some action with every single one of them. I’ve deleted, I’ve responded, I’ve forwarded, I’ve scheduled a meeting, I’ve archived, and/or I’ve unsubscribed. There is no email I’ve ever received that I haven’t dealt with appropriately.

Oh, and this includes my spam folder. I have zero spam.

Yes, I am bragging a bit. Deal with it. Inbox Zero is not some “nice to have;” Inbox Zero is a necessity for anyone who values productivity and wants to be seen as valuable/responsive/caring/attentive to anyone sending them emails:

  • Customers
  • Future Customers
  • Coworkers
  • Vendors
  • Retailers
  • Bosses
  • Future Bosses
  • Friends
  • Family
  • Future Friends and Family

Additionally, Inbox Zero is a necessity for anyone who wants to be certain they don’t miss an important business or personal message. When your inbox is overwhelmed, you pay less attention to the next message you receive. After all, it’s just one of hundreds or thousands you’ve yet to deal with.

I’ve found that with Inbox Zero I’m better able to prioritize my day. I’ve found that by keeping my inbox (and spam folder) empty I have more time to work for clients, write books, exercise, and create snarky, know-it-all blog posts like this one.

I was recently asked by someone with… wait for it… over 7,600 unread emails in their inbox how I got to Inbox Zero. They genuinely wanted to know how they could go from 7,600+ unread messages to zero. Like most everything in life and business, Inbox Zero isn’t hard, it just takes work.

If you’re ready to stop being defensive about your unmanageable inbox and strive for Inbox Zero, here is my advice:


Unsubscribe from everything. There is no weekly sale at Wayfair that’s important enough to allow a near daily onslaught of trash emails from this online retailer.

Oh, and it’s not just Wayfair or Overstock or even Marriot, it’s everyone you ever did business with on the web. Too many companies see email marketing as free; therefore, many follow the “more must be better” mentality and fill your inbox with absolute garbage.

Whether because of the fear of missing out on a great deal or because people are lazy, many don’t unsubscribe from these worthless messages, and they allow their inbox to be cluttered with spam. Unsubscribe from everything… you’ll be fine.

Here’s a hint: When you are ready to buy from Wayfair again, guess what? You’ll find they’re having a sale. You’ll find coupons all over the web. You won’t miss out on anything important if you unsubscribe.

Take Immediate Action

It’s rare that I leave an email in my inbox after I’ve read it. In fact, the only time this happens is when I am gathering data for the response and I expect to respond shortly.

Your feeble argument might be: “But it’s something I need to deal with next week, so I need to keep it in my inbox!”

Actually… you don’t. In these instances, you’ll be more effective and productive if you archive the message and create a calendar reminder of the event on the day you need to deal with it.

For example, let’s say I receive an email today from a client looking for a deeper analysis of last month’s sales results. Because I’m traveling and working with other clients this week, I won’t be able to get to this request until Monday. If I leave the request (and similar messages) in my inbox after I reply, there is a very good chance it will become lost/forgotten when Monday rolls around. I will have overpromised and under delivered.

Instead, I find a spot in my Monday schedule when I will have time to complete their request. I create a reminder by blocking off the appropriate amount of time in my calendar with a note to myself referencing the original email. Then I archive the email string after I reply. This way I don’t have to think about their request until it’s time to act on it.

If the email sat in my inbox, I’d see it multiple times a day for the next week. A wholly unnecessary waste of my time and attention.

Think Before You Reply

When someone includes you in a mass email, think before replying to all. If your response is a simple “Thank You,” there’s no reason to spam the other recipients of the original email. Similarly, if the original email requires no response, archive it.

Not every message requires a reply. If they did, then email strings would never end. Let email strings die a natural and swift death.

Use cc Sparingly

Just as you don’t need to reply to all, you also don’t need to send every email to everyone in your contacts list. Use the carbon copy (cc) field sparingly in your outbound emails. Respect your colleagues’ desire for Inbox Zero by only including them in emails requiring their attention. Those of us with Inbox Zero will thank you.

Folders Don’t Help

Over a decade ago I put all archived emails in individual folders either by sender or by topic so that I could easily retrieve them. Today I have no custom folders. Emails either get archived (where searching by sender or topic is simple), trashed, or sent to spam (and then permanently deleted).

For most who argue that folders help them manage their emails, I find that while they’ve moved unread messages from their inboxes to appropriate folders, they still haven’t dealt with them. Tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year they’ll simply have more unread messages from that sender or regarding that topic, only now, these emails will be unread in separate folders instead of just unread in their inbox.

Start Now

For those of you wanting/hoping for Inbox Zero, there is no better time to start getting control than right now. Don’t put this off until the weekend because we both know there will be something new and shiny to deal with that day. Start right now by unsubscribing from every newsletter and retailer who is spamming you… then, begin putting the other tips in place. I promise you, you’ll thank me.


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