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How to get your email inbox to zero

Our email inboxes probably provide the most time consuming busy work of the 21st century!

Most of us own several email accounts and we get dozens – if not hundreds – of new messages every day.

If you organize your work day according to your emails, you’ll always be busy but rarely get anything done that moves the needle.

But that’s not the only problem.

Since we all get so many new emails every day, our accounts quickly fill up with tons of message clutter that bothers us, because it looks like there’s so much to do!

So, is there a better way to deal with it?

Yes, there is!

After looking at those 6154 emails sitting in my 5 email accounts (plus probably about 2000 in my promotions tab), I’ve decided that I need to change this asap. Crowded places block my mind. And the same is true for crowded places on my laptop.

So, I’ve found a system that will help you get your email inbox to zero in no time, even if you’ve got way more than I had.

Let’s get started!

How to get your email inbox to zero every day

Okay, this is an easy to follow step by step process. Be prepared to invest a little time right now. However, you’ll be able to free up this time multiple folds over the course of the next weeks, months and years.

Step 1: Change your mindset about your inbox

First of all, you need to start changing your mindset about your inbox.

I know, most of us see our inbox as our to do list that determines what has to get done that day. And I’ve used it like that for quite a while as well.

While it is possible to get work done that way, it’s highly inefficient and ineffective. You need to be able to set your priorities for the day or week without looking at your inbox.

Your inbox is merely a means of communication, a messaging app. You might have to take some sort of action after receiving an email. But if that’s the first thing you do in the morning, you might totally forget about your real priorities and jump onto answering emails just to feel productive.

So, set your priorities for work without thinking about your inbox. Then add some time in your day where you’ll deal with email and add tasks from your inbox to your priorities list.

But most important, simply think of email as a messaging app, not as your to do list!

How to get your email inbox to zero
Isn’t that just an amazing view?

Step 2: Block at least 2 hours to go through your emails

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s focus on the actual steps you need to take to get your inbox to zero every day.

First of all, block about 2 hours to go through your emails. If you have multiple accounts or way more than 10000 emails to go through, start with 2 hours and then maybe add another block the next day. As mentioned above, it only took me 1.5 hours to deal with more than 8000 emails. I’ve you still think this is absolutely impossible, read on. You’ll soon see how simple it actually is.

It’s important that you only focus on going through your mail during during this block. Either use the Pomodoro Technique or block off 50 minutes at a time where you don’t get distracted. Then take a 10.minute break and start over.

I know you might think you don’t have 2 hours. But guess what, you’ll probably save 5 every week simply by having an organized inbox.

So, invest those 2 hours now, the ROI is well worth it!

You can download my free Pomodoro worksheet here to boost your productivity (I promise I won’t spam).

Download your free Pomodoro Technique printable!

Step 3: Create a few folders

Let’s start organizing.

Before you go through your emails, you need to create a few folders to organize all those messages.

You already have a bunch of folders like inbox, drafts, sent items, spam, etc. Now, you need to add a few more.

Click on “create new label” below all your existing labels on the left side of your emails

I recommend starting with the following:

  • Dealt with: All emails that are dealt with or don’t need any action go in this folder. This is a better option than deleting, because it still allows you to use the search function.
  • Need action: This is for emails that need some kind of action that takes more than 3 minutes. We’ll get to what to do with them in a minute
  • Information: This is for important information that you might need to reference regularly, for instance instructions for a certain system.

Depending on your business or job, you might want to add a lot more folders, which is totally fine.

Just make sure to keep it to the essential. All email that has been dealt with and doesn’t contain information you need to access regularly goes into the “dealt with” folder. That also goes for emails in the “need action” folder that you’ve dealt with later on.

How to get your email inbox to zero
Here’s the most basic version of additional folders: Dealt with and Need action

Step 4: Start with the highlighted emails

Now it’s time to go through your messages.

If you used to highlight important or take-action emails, start with those. If you’re anything like me, most of them have probably long been dealt with and can go straight to the “dealt with” folder. The ones where you still need to do something or that are important information go into their respective folders.

I quickly realized that anything that’s older than 4 weeks definitely doesn’t need any action. So, I skipped step 4 and went straight to step 5. This depends on how you’ve organized your email so far.

Step 5: Move all emails that are older than 4 weeks to the “dealt with” folder

Next, move anything that’s older than 4 weeks straight to the “dealt with” folder!

Don’t freak out, just do it!

Have you ever faced a situation where an email was lingering in your inbox for more than 4 weeks and then you suddenly decided: oh, right, I’ll answer that now!

Probably not!

And if you really missed something important, then the person will get back to you, trust me. In that case you can just apologize and say you had some issues with your inbox. Since you’re organized from now on, that won’t happen to you again, anyway. So, having issues with your inbox is a valid excuse.

We all get dozens of emails every single day! Get a proper system and stop the overwhelm!
We all get dozens of emails every single day! Get a proper system and stop the overwhelm!

Step 6: Go through the newer emails and put them in the folders

Now, it’s time to go through the emails that are newer than 4 weeks. Put the ones where you have to do something in the “need action” folder and the ones with information you need to access regularly in the “information” folder.

Before you move the rest, go to the next step.

Step 7: Unsubscribe and turn off alerts

Chances are you’ve subscribed to a number of newsletter and you get a ton of alerts. Unsubscribe from everything and turn everything off you don’t absolutely need!

If you have a few newsletters you want to keep, make sure to label these email addresses so that they get saved into a special folder right away (like “Newsletters”). Here’s how to do that in Gmail: Choose a message from a sender that you want to filter.

1. Click the 3 dots on the right of the message and choose “filter messages like this”
2. Leave everything as is and click “create filter”
3. Check the boxes “skip the inbox” and “apply the label”. Choose the label that you’ve created earlier (in this example I chose “need action”). Then click “create filter”

That’s it. Now all emails from this sender will automatically end up in the folder you chose.

Check all your alert emails and turn them all off. These could be from Social Media channels or your calendar etc.

I’ve only done this for the ones that were newer than 4 weeks. I’ll then unsubscribe as I get new emails for the next few weeks.

For Gmail users: You’ll probably get 90% of newsletters and alerts in the promotions tab which you probably rarely look at. You’ve got a few different options: Either just empty it every few weeks just like the spam folder (definitely the easiest way). Or start unsubscribing from the top few, deleting the rest and then unsubscribe as new ones are coming in.

Step 8: Delete junk and emails you don’t need

You can put the newsletters in the “dealt with” folders. But then delete all the notifications, junk and other emails you definitely don’t need.

If unsure, put them in the “dealt with” folder. Don’t think about this step for too long. Just get them out of your inbox!

Step 9: Create templates

Okay, so by now your inbox should be at zero. Yaaay!!!

Well done!

Now it’s time to deal with future emails so that you can treat them in the most efficient and effective way.

Start with creating templates for emails that you need on a regular basis. Save them as a signature, word document or draft that you can access easily.

Step 10: Only check your email at preset times during the day

In order to get you off the email rat race, turn off all notifications and only check your emails at certain preset times during the day.

Ideally, you’ll only check it twice or three times per day but definitely not more than five times.

Add those times to your calendar and block 30 minutes where you go through your emails like described in the next steps.

Then close it again and don’t look at your inbox until the next scheduled block.

Block off certain times during the week where you'll go through the emails that need some kind of action
Block off certain times during the week where you’ll check your emails

Step 11: Use the 3-minute rule

Now, you need to use a new approach to deal with your messages. Since you’ve only got 30 minutes per block to deal with them, you need to be efficient.

Use the 3-minute rule to determine what to do with emails: if it takes less than 3 minutes to reply, do it right away. After you’ve replied, put it in the “dealt with” folder.

For all the emails that need longer to reply because you need to take some further action, put them in the “need action” folder and go to the next step.

Step 12: Determine when you’ll get to the “need action” emails

The last step is to determine when you’ll deal with the “need action” emails.

If you don’t do that, you’ve just created more stress for yourself because you keep thinking about the emails in that new folder.

So, don’t skip this step!

Now, you’ve got 2 options:

  • Either block certain times during the week where you go through this folder (for instance 1 hour per day or 2 longer blocks per week etc.).
  • Or add them as a to do to a block about a certain topic during the week. For instance: let’s say you’re working on 3 projects simultaneously and you’ve received an email that requires action for project A. You’ve determined that you’re working on project A on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 1pm to 5pm. So, if you receive this email on Monday morning, you can add it to the Monday afternoon block, where you’re working on this project.

If you’re not sure which option works better for you, try each option for a week and then decide.

Determine at what times you'll deal with emails that need some sort of action
Determine at what times you’ll deal with emails that need some sort of action

Bonus step: install an automated reply

Now, your new system to deal with email will take a whole lot of stress off your plate, trust me!

However, it might also mean that the sender will have to wait a little longer for a reply. This is usually absolutely no problem and people rarely expect an answer within 10 minutes of sending an email. That is, unless they’ve been trained that you reply within 10 minutes…

If that was your style until now, you need to train them differently. This might take some adjustment time but will soon be accepted by the senders.

In case you feel uncomfortable with this situation, install an automated reply where you let them know that you’ve received their email and are happy to get back to them within a certain time frame (for instance 24 or 48 hours). Then you can also add your phone number for emergencies (which I’ve never experienced so far).

If it sometimes takes you much longer to deal with an email you can also create a template where you thank them for their email and let them know in what time frame they can expect your answer.

Conclusion

That’s it!

Now you have the exact step by step system I used to get my email inbox to zero. You can use the exact same steps and will be able to get your email inbox to zero every day!

I bet you didn’t think it was that easy, right?

It’s really only a matter of organization and prioritization. Email just shouldn’t be a priority! It’s a messaging app, that’s it!

So, treat it that way. Take some time today and get it all organized. And then block off specific times during the week where you’ll get to deal with emails that need action!

Want to get even more productive? Here are a few more articles you might like:

Download your free Pomodoro Technique printable!