Inbox Zero: Improve Productivity by Emptying Out Email

by Christy Rakoczy on September 24, 2013

As you read this, there’s an 80 percent chance that your email inbox contains between 72 and 21,000 messages, according to Dave Troy, CEO of software maker 410 Labs.

Dealing with all that digital correspondence may seem daunting. What’s worse, important communiques may get indefinitely buried or permanently lost in the shuffle. If this scenario sounds familiar, you may want to start taking an inbox-zero approach.

Inbox zero is an email-management system that’s generally attributed to Merlin Mann, creator of 43 Folders. As the “zero” suggests, the goal is to empty your email inbox — and keep it that way. Huffington Post blogger Peter Kay described inbox zero as a “life-changing quest” that allows you to explore the “depths of your very being.”

Sounds simple, right? Here are some tips for improving your productivity by clearing out your inbox.

  • Automate your email. Most major email clients allow you to filter messages and create auto-replies. Filtering lets you skip manually processing email from specific senders or messages containing certain keywords that need to be filed anyway. Canned responses allow you to reply quickly if you find yourself repeatedly answering the same questions or providing the same information.
  • Follow up or file. If a response will take you less than two minutes, do it right away. If follow-up is necessary but requires more than two minutes, Lifehacker suggests making the email an item on your to-do list. Move the email itself into a follow-up folder and then add it as a pending task. (Gmail, for example, lets you add Google tasks using keyboard shortcuts.) Meanwhile, immediately file email you need to keep but don’t need to act on, creating new folders as needed.
  • Unsubscribe. One of LinkedIn’s top tips for making inbox zero work is to unsubscribe from newsletters, turn off email notifications, and remove yourself from groups, lists, and coupon sites. These messages clutter up your inbox quickly and unnecessarily.
  • Delete. Although not a proponent of inbox zero, Deborah Sweeney of Forbes says deleting is a key act in organizing your email. Your inbox shouldn’t be a place to store all of the information that comes your way. If there’s an attachment, download and save it. If an email contains details you may want to revisit, file it or save it offline. Otherwise, make the Delete button your best friend when clearing out your inbox.
  • Check your email at the end of every workday. Before you log off at night, empty your inbox. Processing email at the end of the day means everyone who needs a reply receives one in a timely manner. This may also help you avoid checking email sporadically throughout the day, because you’ve designated a specific time for reading and responding to messages.

By sticking to these tips, you enjoy an empty inbox, improve your productivity, and reduce any email-related stress.