Your Step-by-Step Guide to Reaching Inbox Zero (Even if You Currently Have 1,000+ Unread Emails)
I have an intense fear of lingering notifications. Sure, it’s a little nuts, but I refuse to leave any red flag on my phone untouched. This means I immediately open every banking alert I get (even if I know the purchase was mine), every email I receive (even if I don’t actually read it right away), and every text I see (even if I don’t respond right away).
You might think because of this I spend every second of my day with my nose in my phone, but I don’t. I actually save myself a lot of hassle and anxiety by consistently deleting notifications and reaching inbox zero. That’s when you’ve not only opened, deleted, and answered every email, but you’ve removed it from your inbox in some form or another.
I’ve talked to several people I work with about why they leave so many messages unread, lingering in their inboxes, and I got some very reasonable, logical answers: “It reminds me to answer them,” “I use them as my to-do list for the day,” “I keep them unopened if I know I want to read them at some point but don’t have time now,” “It’s easier to find them,” “It’s spam, I don’t have to read that.”
But I also asked them if they’d feel better if they didn’t have any leftover emails, or if it stressed them out to see such a high number of notifications next to their inbox, and most of them said yes to both. Because even if you have what you think is a fool-proof system, mentally, that feeling of incompleteness, of missing something, of leaving people waiting, will still nag at you.
So your best option is to open everything and remove it from your inbox.
Does this sound impossible to you? Do you think you’re too knee deep to get to where I am? Hold onto your hats, because I’m about to blow your mind—and your inbox—in five easy steps.
Step 1: Find Your Time
First things first, figure out how much time you’re going to need to accomplish this. This depends also on how many emails you currently have in your inbox—the bigger the number, the longer it’s going to take.
If you want this to be a one-and-done kind of deal, you’ll need to block off a good chunk of time. Make sure this fits nicely into your schedule—don’t try to do this when you’re stressed, or overloaded, or in a bad mood, because that’s when things like important responses fall through the cracks.
Conversely, if you prefer to handle it one baby step at a time—one day unsubscribe to all junk, another day create folders, and so on—make sure you’re also blocking off that time in your schedule daily. Physically putting it on your calendar or to-do list makes you feel (more) obligated to complete it.
And just as a note, inbox zero will never be a one-time thing (but more on that later).
Step 2: Assess Your Inbox
Next up, let’s take a good, long look at what we’re working with. Just look—don’t touch, delete, or click on anything yet. Browse through just the subject lines, dates received, and sender, and take note of trends:
- What kinds of emails are you getting on a regular basis? Are most of them newsletters? Junk mail? Messages from your boss, family, or friends? Chain letters?
- What are the subject lines? Are they specific? Do they easily give you information about the content?
- What date are they from? Several months ago? Do most of them come from one day of the week?
- Who’s emailing you? Chances are a good chunk of them come from only a few people or accounts.
This exercise will not only help you figure out your best approach to answering, organizing, and condensing your inbox, but it’ll also make you aware of your typical habits. If you tend to keep messages for months without checking them, then it’s a procrastination issue. If you have more junk emails than work ones, it’s a priority issue. If you’re receiving too many from the same people, it’s a communication issue. And, if you’re receiving the bulk, on say, a Monday, that’s a scheduling issue. And trust me, all of these are easily fixable.
Step 3: Unsubscribe and Spam
The first thing we’re going to physically do is start deleting and unsubscribing to all your spam. You’ll be surprised how much clutter this clears alone, even before handling the important stuff.
Here are the kinds you most likely get:
- Emails from people you always respond to
- Emails from people you sometimes respond to
- Emails from people you never respond to
- Newsletters and subscriptions (you actually subscribe to)
- Social media alerts
- Junk/spam/PR messages/unidentified senders
Those last three categories are what we’re going to deal with first here, the “non-work” or “for fun” pile.
Newsletters and Subscriptions
These are the most important of the “junk” mail, because chances are you subscribed to these at some point in time for a legitimate reason. It can be a store you love and receive coupons from, a news outlet, a scientific magazine, a product round-up.
So, before I play bad cop and say to get rid of it all—which, honestly, isn’t a horrible idea if you want a fresh start—let’s put everything into perspective and figure out what you’re actually using. For each one, ask yourself these three questions:
- How often do you open them?
- If you do open them, how often do you actually read them?
- If you do read them, how often do you then use them? (whether this means printing it out, sending it to a friend, referencing it in your work, saving it and reading it again later)
If you can’t answer these questions, unsubscribe and delete. If you can’t make it to number three, unsubscribe and delete. If you can’t remember how you started receiving them in the first place, unsubscribe and delete. If you don’t open them frequently enough, unsubscribe and delete. If you’re on the fence—fine—Unroll.me is an app that’ll help you sort through that massive pile of subscriptions so you don’t have to do the work yourself.
Be kind, but be honest with yourself. Are you really going to remember to use that coupon before it expires? Are you ever really going to go back and read that article? Do you really care about hearing about XYZ? If it’s not an enthusiastic “Yes!” save yourself the headache later and cut the cord.
Social Media Alerts
This constitutes all those emails you get from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, Pinterest, Spotify, Snapchat, Skype, Venmo—did I miss any? Well, if you think it relates to these, throw it in the pile, too. Some of them probably say something like “Jesse commented on your post” or “You have 25 new followers,” while others are promotional, security checks, or newsletters.
For the sake of inbox zero, I’m just going to say you should try to keep your account and social media as separate as possible. Because in addition to getting an inbox notifcation, you probably also get a phone notification and a bright red number in the corner of your app—which ultimately makes it redundant.
So, your next task is to go into every social media account you have, click on “Settings,” and turn off all your email alerts. Then, click on the last one the platform sent you and hit “unsubscribe” to make sure you’re also off their list.
The beauty of this is that it isn’t a permanent decision—you can always go back and change your settings. But I’d place big money that you won’t miss a thing.
A lot of junk we put on ourselves, whether it’s because we hand our information out to random stores, or we list our address on our social media, or we respond to strangers. So my biggest advice for you is to always be cautious in how you give out your email, and to whom.
But some of it’s inevitable, and that’s the stuff you should just delete without opening. And for the people that keep sending you stuff, make sure to report them as spam before you delete it out so they won’t show up again.
Step 4: Get Organized
Once you’ve handled most of the fluff—and only after you’ve handled the fluff—it’s time to get to the meaty stuff—or the top three categories I listed above.
Now, I’m not going to tell you how to organize your inbox—there’s no perfect system, ideal strategy, or “every successful person does this” method. You’re the keeper of your mail, and so you deserve to arrange it as you wish. But I will list a couple approaches you can take:
Using Labels and Folders
This is an option for people like myself who refuse to use apps when they can do it themselves. First, figure out for each email if you have to respond immediately, if you need to respond later, or if you don’t need to respond at all (for this one I’m going to say open it, read it, and either file it or delete it right at the same moment).
Then, decide your plan of action. If you need to respond soon but don’t have the time now, star it or put it in a folder labeled “Need to respond to” and put a note on your to-do list to check back on that folder.
If you need to wait longer—maybe because you’re working on something related—send a short response letting the sender know you saw the message and will get back to him or her in X days. Then, file it in another folder labeled “In process.”
When naming your folders, make sure you’re specific and making them easily recognizable. There’s nothing worse than forgetting where you put your bank statements or insurance information because the folder was labeled “Miscellaneous.”
The most important trick to opening every message on the spot is having another back-up system in place. Sure, using folders keeps them organized, but because they’re already opened there’s no warning sign to check up on them. So, lean on your to-do list, your online calendar, or your phone reminders to make sure you’re keeping track of when you receive something and when you need to get back to someone.
If the first approach doesn’t work for you, there’s always apps! And I have plenty for you to test out.
For Gmail, try Inbox by Google, an awesome tool that helps you quickly scan for photos or events, sort messages into categories, and even syncs with your calendar. Also, Boomerang, an extension to Gmail, lets you schedule emails to be sent later and send updates when you or someone has to respond so you’ll never have to leave them unopened.
To make checking your inbox more fun on a daily basis, try The Email Game, which times your effort and rewards you with positive feedback. And for the avid mobile users, try Boxer, your ultimate tool for answering and sorting efficiently and on-the-go.
Step 5: Create a System for the Future
Congratulations! You (hopefully) have gone through every email, deleted or sorted it, and reached that beautiful number zero.
But the work doesn’t stop here—you now have to come up with a method for maintaining this. Here are the two things I recommend doing to keep your inbox low on a consistent basis:
Talk to Your Network
When you analyzed your inbox in step two, were there certain people who stuck out? Whether it’s because they send you the most messages, or because they have a typical time or day they communicate with you?
These exact people can help you maintain inbox zero (who would’ve thought?). Once you figure out what system works for you, decide how you like to receive emails and let your network know.
For example, my boss searches by subject line to find emails she needs, so I always make sure to provide her enough information in the subject line so they’re easy to find. Similarly, we send a lot of non-urgent updates back and forth. Rather than responding as they come in, we set up a system to only send certain types of updates on certain days. Now I know exactly what kinds of messages to expect, and when.
Open communication is not only key in having an organized, respectful work flow, but lack of it could also be what’s contributing to your crazy inbox. So, sit down with your boss and colleagues and let them know how to better send you things—and ask them what they prefer, too!
There will also be times when you’re receiving a lot of emails on things you could easily talk about in person. If this happens a lot, instead of communicating online, schedule weekly meetings to go over all that information.
Schedule Email Time Into Your Day
Even though your inbox has hundreds and thousands of unread emails, I’d bet you check your account daily, if not hourly. So why does it get out of control so fast?
My guess is you don’t actively check it. You probably refresh it, scroll down to see who sent what, and then close out before opening or really reading anything.
Let’s change that habit—start setting aside 15 minutes at the beginning and end of each day (or brief moments every couple hours), to go through and open every single thing that comes in. Make it a priority like any other task. And after a while, you’ll be able to open, read, delete, file, and mark every kind of email you receive in seconds.
The last thing I will recommend is keeping your work and personal accounts separate. The more you mix the two, the more likely it is you’ll have unread spam build up in your work account, and important messages get lost in your personal one.
I’ve noticed, after looking at a bunch of my colleagues’ accounts, that their work ones are a lot more organized because, understandably, they take their career seriously. But your personal life deserves as much love. So if you’re not at inbox zero there, give it the time and energy it needs to be just as clean. Because I genuinely believe a tidy life, in all areas, is a happier and less stressful one.
Did this work for you? Do you have any other tips for hacking inbox zero? Tweet me!
Photo of woman on laptop courtesy of Paul Bradbury/Getty Images.
As an Associate Editor for The Muse, Alyse is proud to prove that yes, English majors can change the world. She calls many places home, including Illinois where she grew up and the small town of Hamilton where she attended Colgate University, but she was born to be a New Yorker. In addition to being an avid writer, Alyse loves to dance, both professionally and while waiting for the subway.More from this Author