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Dennis Ploeger
Dennis Ploeger

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Get self-organized using Inbox Zero


Being a good developer isn't only about knowing your way around in a programming language and crafting complex algorithms. A handy skill is also finding ways to properly organize yourself and your work.

People these days always brag about how they're able to adopt all those nice agile project management methods. How they write stories, construct epics, run through sprints. But when I take them aside and let them show me their inbox, hell breaks loose.

I know people, who have over 60 GB in their mailbox and everything's in the inbox, with 90% of the mails marked as unread. These people typically don't react to requests by mail or take days and several reminders to answer. Usually they tell you to phone them up, because they "get sooo many mails!"

Usually, these types of people are also late for meetings and tend to forget to do things or get easily swamped and distracted.

If you're just a bit like what I described and really want to change that, let me take your hand and lead you to the wonderful world of Inbox Zero.

What? Zero? Like in... zero?

The methodology I'd like to show you is called Inbox Zero and was originally thought up by a guy called Merlin Mann. If you have some spare time, go watch his video on Google tech talks. It's worth it.

And yes, there's the word "Zero" there. Meaning: Nothing, nada, null, gar nichts!

The goal of Inbox Zero is to have your inbox empty at all times

So, go. Mark all that mails and del-- no, stop! Just kidding. Please read on.


If you want to go Inbox Zero, you definitely need a proper e-mail client. You need the following features:

  • Easily archive a mail to a single folder by just pressing a shortcut
  • A good search engine for searching through your archive
  • A defer/remind feature

Okay, let's go!

First action hero

The idea behind Inbox Zero is to directly react to every mail you receive with one of these four simple actions:

  • Delete: You don't need the mail and directly throw it away. This also indicates, that further mails like this might be something you don't want. So you might check out, wether you can unsubscribe from those mails.
  • Archive: The mail is important and might be needed later. Move the mail to your archive. Hint: Get to know your mail client's shortcuts so you can just hit the archive shortcut here
  • Respond: You directly need to send an update back to the sender. Afterwards decide wether the e-mail can now be deleted or has to be archived
  • Defer: You need to send a reply but it's not critical right now. Let your mail client remove the mail from your inbox (out of sight) and put it back after a specified time (in two hours, tomorrow, next week, etc.)

The archive and folder overkill

In Inbox Zero, important e-mails are put into an archive. The archive is just a simple folder in your mailbox. This makes use of the search features of modern e-mail clients, which lets you easily find mails by senders or timespans.

An older approach is to create a folder hierarchy and store all mails in those folders. This approach usually doesn't work and results in an overkill of folders which simply let your brain explode at some point. It has shown, that the effort to manage those immense infrastructure is way more than its actual use.

And also, please don't use filters! Filters were crafted in hell, believe me. I've seen more people that don't find their mails again, because one of their twenty filters has moved away the message to the wrong folder, than people who get mode productive by using them.

Deferring or as I'd like to call it: Long Sigh

To defer a mail is like taking a three month vacation.

What I mean by deferring (or reminding or scheduling) a mail is this:

  • The mail is removed from the inbox (this results in the long sigh)
  • You are asked when the mail should return. You usually can choose between several points in time like in a few hours, tomorrow or on a specific date and time
  • When the time's up, your mail client will put the mail back into the inbox, usually showing you some information, that the mail has been deferred

And when the mail's back, you can reiterate through the aforementioned actions.

Please be sure your e-mail client has a stable deferring feature. This has to be a stable, automatic workflow. You can not reliably do that manually.

From 60GB to Inbox Zero

So, how do you start if you really want your inbox "zero"? The first step is to minimize the number of incoming mails.

Let's for example take those newsletter mails from three months ago, that are still in the "unread" state. You really need that? Really?

So start unsubscribing from newsletters you don't read, unwatch issues you're not involved in (anymore), get yourself removed from distribution lists you're not actively taking action in and tell people to remove you from those long cc:-lists they just keep on notifying whyever.

A rule of thumb: Everything you receive regularly and aren't interested in directly upon arrival can safely be unsubscribed. Also there isn't much sense in keeping old newsletters because you might read them again. Trust me, you won't.

Then, simply archive all mails older then two weeks. You may also delete them, if you're so brave. Just get them out of the inbox, don't look at them again.

Everything that's older than two weeks is not important anymore. The worst thing that can happen, is that you get reminded about something. But that would happen anyway with that huge inbox count of yours.

Finally, take your time and process those two weeks old mails one by one by applying one of the four actions above.

Don't get overwhelmed. After a slow start you will get used to handling the mails fast and the whole process should only take about an hour.

Is it really that easy?

YES, OF C-- okay, no. It's not that easy, but it really is fairly easy. You'll encounter some problems at start and you have to keep on working on it regularly but eventually you will start to feel a good relief when your inbox is nice, shiny and clean.

Hit me!

I like to know your organization techniques and your experiences with Inbox Zero or other methodologies.

Have fun and feel relieved!

Top comments (26)

thomasjunkos profile image
Thomas Junkツ • Edited

Not to forget: setting up filter rules.

  • Automatically route newsletters to the according folder.

  • Filter Mails by projects and move to according folders

  • Filter out mails with "lunch", "food", "ill", "flu" etc.

I use my inbox as a reminder of what demands extra attention. After skimming mails in the morning, everything left in the inbox demands action as soon as necessary (not always possible): things should be done sometimes today, but not now. Or things should be done tomorrow not today.

But that requires the discipline to schedule honestly.

My inbox has a mental upper limit of 3. Never more than 3 items scheduled for "later".

kungtotte profile image
Thomas Landin

I'm a proponent of the head-first transition to Inbox Zero.

Simply take all of your email and archive it right away.

Then deal with any new mail using the rules described here. Don't waste your time unsubscribing from newsletters that aren't going out any more, old tickets aren't being updated so you're not getting updates from those, so why waste time on them?

Secondly I think most people are doing it wrong by treating their mail client as a task management system.

Email is for communication

Tasks, tickets, calendars and events, etc., are all separate things which often use email but don't make the mistake of thinking you should be actively managing those things through email.

When an email arrives that results in a new task item for you, then add a new task item in your task management software of choice.

Most mail clients support adding and changing calendar events directly so by all means go ahead and use those features, but your calendar is ultimately a separate beast.

Deferring email is a code smell of Inbox Zero.

If it's not actionable but you need the reference: archive it.

If it's actionable: add it to your task list then archive it.

If it's something you need to reply to then do it right away: then archive or delete it.

If you can't reply right away: leave it in your inbox until you reply.

Deferred emails are a sign you're abusing your email as a task list, and doing it just to keep your inbox at zero means you're really just cargo culting the concept.

It's about managing your communications and information, not about the magical number zero.

phlash profile image
Phil Ashby • Edited

I'm with Thomas here. E-mail often gets abused for other purposes, none of which it's very good for (I blame MIME types for most of this scope creep!). I would prefer to use the right tools (typically a tracking tool, a pub/sub information platform, and human interaction), then drop both e-mail and instant messaging completely due to the amount of distraction caused by them. Inbox Zero is a coping strategy to a bigger problem of unplanned communication...

A particular pain point I find with e-mail is that the source routed nature of addressing causes all manner of communication gaps, some malevolently used by manipulators to introduce or cut people out of conversations, more typically a lack of information on who should be part of something and no guidelines or training on using it well (IMO another coping strategy for a poor choice of tool).

OK, I feel better now :)
[edited to add this search link - this topic has been here a few times]

dploeger profile image
Dennis Ploeger

I agree to some degree, but task management software just didn't work out for me. I simply forgot to look at them.
Besides the obvious problem, that I'm not adhering to the concept of e-mail, I actually don't see the point to use two applications when instead you can use one application, that you use all the time.

patricktingen profile image
Patrick Tingen • Edited

Nice post! I have been using a form of GTD for some time now and have an almost empty inbox of max a handful of items.

I don't agree on the filters though. I do think they are valuable for some mails like confirmation of payments and the like. I want those mails but I don't want to read them. They should be there when I need them so I filter them by marking them as read and sending them straight to the archive. Mails with things like "birthday" and "cake" follow the same route. Reason for not deleting them straightaway is my fear of false positives.

There are some more cases for filters, but I do agree with you that a folder structure is too complex. I use a lot of labels in gmail instead and I apply them with ... Filters :)

dploeger profile image
Dennis Ploeger

Thanks. What I kind left out of the article was my actual implementation of the technique with keeping my current active tasks in my inbox, so we're alike there. But not on the filters topic. 😊

patricktingen profile image
Patrick Tingen

That's good; diversity makes the world an interesting place

Thread Thread
dploeger profile image
Dennis Ploeger

Totally agree!

wajahatkarim profile image
Wajahat Karim 🇵🇰

Very nice tip. I have been struggling to do this for a while. Your tips are practical and have sorted my some confusions. One thing I am curious about is what email client you use for both laptop and mobile?

dploeger profile image
Dennis Ploeger

Thanks. I've been using AirMail for a while, but was unsatisfied with their support and switched to Spark now although I don't like their threads-only approach. But those are only available for the Apple people. I don't know about other ones

wajahatkarim profile image
Wajahat Karim 🇵🇰

Thanks for your suggestions. I will look into these :)

bzdata profile image

Great post. It's important to stick with this. Use an email app that helps you stay on target -- such as Airmail or Spark. I like both because you can send email messages to Trello or other services to get your job done.

dean profile image

I've been doing this for years. It's so calming, I especially love how GMail and Inbox both display a little landscape when you've cleared all your mail.

I like inbox a bit better since it represents emails as "tasks" rather than mail. I had to move back to GMail for work though, since I needed some features that weren't available in Inbox (like better formatting in email signatures)

ahmedmusallam profile image
Ahmed Musallam

This post is fantastic! I use a very similar technique with my emails, I hate the notification circle with numbers in it... lol. But I do not defer.

This makes me want to build an inflexible Mail client that only has those four simple actions as options to deal with emails. I think the strict cycle of decision making with the zero inbox method is awesome!

andytower_rus profile image
Andrey Alferov

Many in this post is true. But one moment. I use filters for mail because having three mail list. This filter help sort mail in three different folder and this save my time.

dploeger profile image
Dennis Ploeger

And do you actually walk in this folder and read each of the newsletter posts? Everytime? In my experience people use filters to sort mails into folders but never actually read the filtered mails.

andytower_rus profile image
Andrey Alferov • Edited

No. It's true. But this is archive email and I use this only for find information. I not reading this every times.

Thread Thread
dploeger profile image
Dennis Ploeger

Okay, I'm using search for that.

thorstenhirsch profile image
Thorsten Hirsch

The same here. My inbox is my archive. The unread mails in my inbox are my inbox. My worst enemy: people who send me screenshots instead of text.

dploeger profile image
Dennis Ploeger

Oh, yes! 😂 That really is horrifying. Another thing is emails with the main content in attached files. 🙄

mogery profile image
Gergő Móricz

Are there any e-mail clients that implement Inbox Zero?

dploeger profile image
Dennis Ploeger

I've replied to that somewhere above already:

I've been using AirMail for a while, but was unsatisfied with their support and switched to Spark now although I don't like their threads-only approach. But those are only available for the Apple people. I don't know about other ones.

antonfrattaroli profile image
Anton Frattaroli

I used to live this way and it was amazing. Life was good. Then I started working at a company where they prefer Slack over email and its just chaos.