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Cover image for Inbox Zero: How To Keep A Clean Email Inbox (And Mind)

Inbox Zero: How To Keep A Clean Email Inbox (And Mind)

florimondmanca profile image Florimond Manca Originally published at blog.florimond.dev Updated on ・6 min read

This post was originally published at blog.florimondmanca.com.

I am a final year student in systems and software engineering at CentraleSupélec. My school has an extremely active campus life. The main channel for communication here is email. Like, mass email. I mean, 30 emails per day, every day. I'm not even joking. So when I arrived in first year back in 2015, I quickly had to learn how to manage my inbox efficiently.

As a former software engineering intern, I had to deal with dozens of email per day too: JIRA notifications, company-wide announcements, CI/CD build alerts, etc.

I adopted a simple workflow to keep a clean inbox:

  1. Is the email irrelevant? Unsubscribe if need be, then delete it.
  2. Does it require taking action? Do it now, or keep the email until that's done.
  3. Archive it!

Then I discovered this had a name: Inbox Zero.

Most of my posts are technical, but I wanted this one to be non-technical and aim at anyone who has to deal with high-volume inbound email.

I will share how this method helps me keep a clean inbox and a peaceful mind. I'll show you how easy it is to implement and hopefully inspire you to adopt it as well!

What others do

My school of engineering has about 3,000 students, about 500 of which are in my promotion. As a result, I've been able to compare how other people manage large numbers of daily emails.

I have told friends about how I manage my email. I try to keep my inbox as empty as possible, essentially using it as a todo list. They also told me about their workflow.

Well, I was shocked to discover that some of them never cleaned their inbox. I've seen inboxes containing 7000+ emails, some of them from years ago! Downright horrifying. These days, I feel overwhelmed as soon as I've got more than 10 emails in my inbox. How can they bear having thousands of them?

A few reasons they gave me:

  • I don't have the time to clean my inbox.
  • I don't need to clean it — I get away with inbox folders.
  • I don't know how to clean it.

After digging deeper, I also learnt something incredibly surprising: some people don't know about the "Archive" button! They either keep the email in their inbox or delete it.

Yet, Inbox Zero is all about the archive button.

It's as easy as that.

Email is just like regular mail

Have you ever received mail? Like, actual physical letters? I'm pretty sure you have.

At least, I have, and I've got a very simple way of dealing with it:

  1. I check the mailbox once per day and take the new mail out.
  2. If it's garbage, I gladly throw it away.
  3. If it's interesting and I have to do something about it (like fill in an online form, or notify someone):
    • Can I do it within 2 minutes? If so, I do it right away.
    • Otherwise, I keep the mail front and center on a shelf so I am reminded to deal with it when I've got the time.
  4. When I'm done, I either keep the letter in my records for future reference or toss it away into the waste paper basket of oblivion (how poetic is that?).

I'm pretty sure that's mostly how you do it too. You don't even have to think about it too hard. It's natural.

Yet, I have a question:

Would you let letters, postcards and ads pile up in your physical mailbox forever, even after they've been been read and dealt with?

Sounds absurd, right? Yet, this is exactly what you do when you keep email in your inbox.

I have good news

The ideas behind Inbox Zero are simple. It's no rocket science. There's no black magic. Even better:

Inbox Zero isn't any different from how you're used to manage physical mail.

Let me repeat — it's the exact same workflow! You've been doing it all your life. You know how it works.

So there is absolutely reason zero (pun intended) for not dealing with electronic email the same way.

Still feeling a bit unsure? Let me show you da wae.

The way to a clean inbox

1. Start by archiving all your inbox. Now.

Here you are with hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox. How can you make sense of all that mess?

Well, I've already told you: the core of Inbox Zero is two wordsjust archive!

Contrary to trash, archived emails are not lost. They just go out of your inbox, and into somewhere you can retrieve them in the future. That's why my advice is:

You should feel confident about archiving.

The first step should then be: archive all emails presently in your inbox. Tested and proven by fellow students and friends.

And believe me, it's pretty relieving.

Gladly archive all your inbox. 👌 (Now.)

2. Deal with irrelevant incoming emails

Is your inbox filling up with tons of ads or content you don't even care about? You need to sort this out.

If it's a subscription of some sort, find and click the unsubscribe link. Then only should you delete the email.

If the email is a one-off, then the only thing you can do is delete it.

The important thing is that you should decide immediately whether to toss an incoming email away so that garbage doesn't end up filling up your inbox again.

3. Ponder emails requiring action

Sometimes, an email requires you to take action. It may be forwarding it to someone else, answering a meeting request, filling in an online form — anything.

When that is the case, there are only 2 options:

  1. Can the action be done quickly, e.g. under 2 minutes? Then, just do it!
  2. Otherwise, you should keep the email in your inbox and work it out it later.

The good thing about option 2 is that any read email in your inbox can then be thought of as a todo. That's also why I sometimes call Inbox Zero "Inbox as a Todo".

Yet, if you notice these "todo" emails pile up in your inbox, it might be worth investing in a task management tool, or a todo app of some sort (or get stuff done in the first place 😉). That's an even shorter path to a clean inbox. Plus, if it has reminders and alerts, you'll probably find it easier on your mind as well!

As an example, here is an email I would certainly take action upon right away:

From: elsa@company.biz
To: florimond@company.biz
Subject: Spare paper
---
Hi Florimond,

Do you have any spare paper left in the cupboard?
I need 2 sheets of paper for a presentation this afternoon.

Cheers,
Elsa

That definitely won't need more than 2 minutes. I can just check whether I have some paper left and answer to Elsa that she can pick it up at my desk anytime she wants.

Here's another example:

From: marketing@company.biz
To: everyone-including-me@company.biz
Subject: Rebranding Survey
---
Hi all,

We are working on rebranding our company and would like to gather everyone's input and ideas.

Please fill in this online form when you have some time: [Link]

Best,
Marketing Team

This will take more than 2 minutes to deal with. I probably want to give some actionable input to marketing as to how we can improve our brand and what values it should convey. As a result, I will keep this email in my inbox and anytime I check my email again — which might be when I have some free time — I will be reminded to answer the survey.

4. Just. Archive. It.

In any case, if the email is of any importance to you, you should keep it. By that I mean, archive it.

The reason why is simple: if you ever need that email again, you'll find it in the archives.

On the other hand, if you'll never need it again, there's no reason to waste storage for it and you should throw it away.

Free up your mind

We sometimes think of email as a burden. We need to "deal with it" or "sort it out" multiple times a day. It shouldn't be like that. It doesn't have to be like that.

On a personal level, I strongly believe that Inbox Zero has helped me free up my mind. It helped me reduce stress because I always know that things I have to do are in my inbox, and I can just look them up. It's a matter of reducing cognitive load.

And if you're a developer, there's a chance you're already facing a fair amount of cognitive load in your regular job. It only makes managing your email smoothly even more important.

If you try out Inbox Zero — let me know how it turns out! A few fellow students who went for it told me they love how easy it is to manage email now. Hope you reconcile with email too. 💻

Stay in touch!

If you enjoyed this post, you can find me on Twitter for updates, announcements and news. 🐤

Discussion

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bgadrian profile image
Adrian B.G.

So .. it has a name, after all these years.. I love Inbox from google because it rewarded and promoted this idea.

Snooze, archive or delete, or leave it if you do it soon, this is how I roll 😎.

For mass email sources that I dont unsubscribe or spam I use skip inbox and archive filter rules, and each folder has the unread count so thats ok.

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twobridges profile image
Dean Grande

Google are killing Inbox in 2019. I'm furious.

google.com.au/inbox/

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mrtnrdl profile image
Martin Riedel

It's about the workflow, not about the tool ;)

Don't get me wrong - I'm a big fan of inbox as well, but i recently switched back to gmail to get it 'flowing' before i need to. And it's actually not that bad. There's an archive button as well as the categories. The only thing i'm really missing are the reminders, but i hope they'll integrate that soon.

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bgadrian profile image
Adrian B.G.

Definatelly but Inbox was all about this. Gmail and other clients, with an empty inbox still has 30 texts and buttons cluttering your eyes, and it doesnt reward you with a sun background 😁

They also added Snooze in gmail.

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kayis profile image
K

I'm doing zero inbox for almost ten years now, and people always envy me for having such a clean inbox.

Googlemail has excellent features for this. I have filters for newsletters, freelancer project emails, for every customer one. They get tagged and archived right away.

There is also a setting to change the "Reply" button to "Reply&Archive".

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

Interesting — so your emails are automatically archived as soon as they get in your inbox? How do you manage read vs. unread emails?

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kayis profile image
K

Gmail displays tags like folders/categories in the sidebar. A mail can be archived but unread and every tag in the sidebar shows how many mails with that tag are unread.

Gmail list all mails, even the archived ones, when I click on a tag in the sidebar. So it's basically like having many sorted inoxes. Only mails from unknown sources land in the "real" inbox.

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phlash909 profile image
Phil Ashby

Almost the same here, but with Outlook @ work and Thunderbird @ home, both of which are happy to apply rules, show me counts in folders and keep my inbox clear for oddities.

I subscribe to a number of mailing lists, these are easy rules to create and I can fit processing into my day when it suits me.

Some things I drop unread into other folders as one-offs, if the situation repeats itself a few times I build a rule. classic JIT :)

One thing I would add - when there is a thread going on, I tend to keep the last email, and nuke the rest, unless someone has actually edited before replying (unusual).

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dudusray profile image
Kelvin Murithi

Would have been nice to also mention filters. I use my yahoo as a subscriptions email, there are some newsletters or periodicals i wouldn't like to miss, so, i setup a filter for them to capture each subscription into its own folder.

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

Sure, filters can be a nice way to categorize emails, and your « to-read » list example is a very good idea. I suppose you can also apply the principles of Inbox Zero to those individual categories — eg archive/delete newsletters you’ve read?

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dudusray profile image
Kelvin Murithi

Hmm, recursion? Hadn't really thought about that. . . <>

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exadra37 profile image
Paulo Renato

Well I introduced this approach to my work email today and I shared it with colleagues and friends and already found that two of them are using this for years but not aware that their approach was a thing with a name ;)

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

Such a cool story! I’m pretty sure a lot of people use this approach without knowing someone decided to put a name on it ;) Another sign it’s actually a natural thing to do!

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exadra37 profile image
Paulo Renato

When I said for years I should have said for decades ;)

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mbadolato profile image
Mark Badolato

Take it a step further, especially if using Gmail. Use the multiple inbox feature and the flags feature to get the actionable email out of the main inbox and bucketized and easily viewable. The main inbox becomes Zero Inbox still. This was the single greatest setup I've done for managing my email. Setup instructions here:

klinger.io/post/71640845938/dont-d...

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Subbu Lakshmanan

I have been planning to do "Zero" inbox but hesitating for a long time. I do read every email and making it a habit of having "Zero" unread mails. Just now archived all the mails, fingers crossed :D.

I know I'm not losing any mails, but I guess it feels bit uneasy since I have done it for the first time. I do have few rules setup to sort the new emails, and plan to add rules as new emails come in.

One question though is, Can we apply similar rules on the archived mails as well? Applying rules on archived emails to put them into separate folders.

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

It can feel uneasy in the beginning.

However, I never felt the need to categorise emails that went to the archive. When I need to find an old email, a keyword search is generally enough.

I also feel like having to put emails into separate folders adds more management burden; and the point of Inbox Zero (at least the way I practice it) is also to reduce the amount of work required to manage your inbox.

But as always, the extra steps in your workflow (e.g. adding automated classification rules) are up to you and whatever suits you best. :-)

I'm glad you made the leap to Inbox Zero, though! Hope it helps.

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bzdata profile image
Beatriz

I use Spark email. The product really pushes for Inbox Zero, even though I've never achieved it yet. The key features are snoozing, delayed send, archiving and use their integrations heavily. I share emails to my Trello board for todo, Bear for more mindshare and more thoughts in my responses.

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

Nice! This is extremely interesting to me. I'm a heavy Trello user, from personal todo lists to personal and team projects, so the ability to integrate it in a mail client is appealing. I'll definitely take a look at Spark!

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Danny de Vries

I'm a huge proponent of 'not using the inbox as a to-do list'. I need to get the mails out of the inbox.

Also I batch process a lot, don't wait for them to come in and answer straight away but move through them at specific times throughout the day.

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sonnk profile image
Nguyen Kim Son

Great article to become an inbox zero guru 👍. If you want to make sure your email is not used by a spammer that usually you have no way to unsubscribe and spam engine sometimes could not detect, I would suggest using a different email per service. That could be done easily with an email alias service, I also wrote a small post about this topic if you are interested.

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mariocd10 profile image
Mario DeLaPaz

I'm going to give this a try and see how it goes. I like to have my inbox rid of any emails I don't need and make sure all email is read but I never actually archived. I always saw the archive button as a black hole where it would be forgotten about. I like the concept of inbox zero. I like to go for the clean approach.

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

Nice to hear!
So did you just delete all emails once they've been dealt with? If an email important, you can instead put it in the archives. This way, you can easily retrieve it for future reference. :-) (Provided the email has certain obvious keywords.)
At least, that's my main mental image about the archive button.

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ar10642 profile image
Andrew Richardson

Am I the only one that doesn't really care about what's in my inbox. Never have, and it doesn't bother me at all. I have better things to do, in all honesty.

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

That's a fair point, honestly. It might just be that I am a control freak. 😙

Seriously, I think it boils down to personal preference. I have a lot of emails, notifications and requests of all sorts all the time. Keeping a clean inbox helps me keep track of what's done, what's being done and what's left to do, so that's why having a zero email inbox goal suits me.

The student friends I'm mentioning in the post were actually having issues with the high volume of email, and they told me switching to Inbox Zero (or a variant or however we want to call it) has helped them.

The point is — while the workflow suits you, I suppose there's no need to overthink it. 😄

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ar10642 profile image
Andrew Richardson

Yeah I guess whatever works to keep your head in the game. Mine is just ignoring the numbers 😀

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Krista Handel

Thank you for this post! A month into my first job and I was feeling the pains of inbox overload. I was managing it slightly but today I found the archive button! Excited to use these other tips and tricks!

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

Great stuff! I’m glad you find these tips useful.

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Robin Kretzschmar

I heard a lot about inbox zero over the years and after switching the company I took the first step and eliminated folders and started using tags.
But it was never necessarry enough for me to try the real inbox zero and I never used the archive folder! (don't know what held me back).

Thanks to your post, I started on my private mail account, took 4 hours to decide which mails are worth archiving and set up some filter rules.

Great feeling!

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

Great news! Nice to hear :)

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karolyi profile image
László Károlyi

Came from the newsletter.

Isn't archiving just putting the trash/clutter somewhere else from in front your eyes? I never grasped the theory of archiving, in fact I never used it. Hell, I don't even know how it works. But if it works like that, then I don't want to use it.

Either you keep an email because it's (kinda) important, or you don't. That is:

  • you keep it until you deal with it (Thunderbird has colored labels, I started to use those recently), and then delete it.
  • you keep it for future reference, that is why you use named folders to put those into
  • it has memories you don't want to forget, so you keep it.

My inbox has 1304 emails, starting from 2002-06-06. My trash has a retention policy of 60 days. If the deleted email is from before, chances are I won't need that email ever again. Again, I never used the 'Archive' button.

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

Hi! Interesting point, which allows me to clarify something — the archives are not just another trash.

As I wrote in the post, if an email is not important, you should delete it. If it has any importance, you should archive it once dealt with.

The key ideas is to use the archive as a place to keep email that's been dealt with but you may need to refer to in the future. Not keeping it in the inbox allows you to use the latter in a "todo list" fashion — which is a workflow I personally enjoy very much.

I suppose labels/folders/categories is an extra way of classifying important email — and you're absolutely right to use them if they help you making the act of finding older important email easier. :-)

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lgosse profile image
Lucas Gossé

I happen to work at a company which try to solve the pain of email overload! 😊
Check out our last article:
gwapit.com/blog/email/automate-you...

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zeerorg profile image
Rishabh Gupta

I'm going to try this right now and give my input :-)

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

Fantastic! Can't wait to hear your thoughts.

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zeerorg profile image
Rishabh Gupta

So I've been at this since I last commented and I'm pretty amazed at how much more I can get out of my inbox. It is one of those r/lifeprotips things that I will follow. Thanks :-)

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

Brilliant 🙌 Really glad about how life-changing that sounds. ;-)

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lloople profile image
David Llop

Being doing this since first contact with email back in the yahoo & hotmail era. Now I know it has a name and I'm not crazy or paranoid with my email 🙂 Thanks for sharing

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David J Eddy

I too practice Inbox Zero. Bothers me even when there is 1 email unread. Open->Act->Archive. Done.

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

So relatable! ;-)

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nicostam profile image
Nico Stam

Back in the days you had Mailbox (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mailbox_(app...)

This app was all about zero-inbox and a great feature where you could "Snooze" an email so it would be temporarily removed from your inbox. You could tell at which point in future you wanted this email to reappear in your inbox, like tomorrow, next week, certain date or someday..

Unfortunately this app isn't alive anymore, but other "new" mailclients have implemented this feature in some way..

You could make additional folders in your mailclient to act like this snooze-feature. For example, make a folder for every day of the week. So on a certain day open that folder and handle all the emails in it... Or move them to the next day ;)

I'm still in search for a good alternative for Mailbox which works on osx, ios & android. If someone has a suggestion, please let us know!

Cheers, Nico

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Raul Piraces Alastuey

Interesting... I’m currently using Polymail which helps you to reach inbox zero. Very helpful and nice mail app