Several years ago, Merlin Mann of coined the idea of “Inbox Zero,” that called into question the way most people approached the necessary evil that is email, and suggested steps for finally gaining control over our inboxes. Since then, there has been a fair amount of pushback about the Inbox Zero concept, questioning its usefulness , that we’ve missed the original point, and the ways in which the approach can make us even more chained to email. I didn’t follow the Inbox Zero strategy to the tee, but I used the idea to develop my own system that has been working for me for the past 2 years. Here are a few ways in which my new inbox strategy has really made an impact in my life:

  • I feel less overwhelmed because checking my inbox is no longer a stressful activity.
  • I have become a more reliable emailer and my responsiveness has improved. Emails rarely fall through the cracks.
  • I do not feel the urge to check my inbox incessantly throughout the day, allowing me the head space to focus on other things.

Sound appealing? Read on to learn more about my approach. Then post your favorite email strategies in the comments below.

Note: Most of these strategies can be used regardless of what type of email you use, but I use Gmail, so if you use a different mail client some of these tips may need to be tweaked. 

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Phase One: Clearing the clutter

1. Select a cut-off date, then archive everything from before that date

When I decided to tackle my email inbox, I had no unread emails, but lots of un-dealt-with emails. By “un-dealt-with” I mean either I hadn’t replied, archived, deleted, or done something else I wanted to do with the email (like save an article contained in the email, forward to a friend, etc). I decided it wasn’t worth dealing with emails older than 6 months.* So let’s say you are starting this on June 15, 2015. Your cut-off date would be six months earlier: January 15, 2015. Now here is where we rip off the bandaid–archive everything from before January 15. All of it.

That wasn’t so hard was it? Now let’s move on to step #2…

*Depending on your circumstances, you may want to set a different cut-off date (one year, for example). Some people take the more drastic step of archiving everything currently in their inbox. If this is you, congrats, you intrepid emailer, you! You can skip step #2 and move straight to Phase Two: Maintenance.

2. Deal with everything from after your cut-off date

You will likely need to carve out a few hours for this activity, so grab a tasty beverage, crank up some tunes, and get ready to dive in. When I did this step, I had about 1,000 emails from the last 6 months. This number may sound daunting, but only about 200 of them required any kind of reply or attention. Here are the questions I used to sift through these 1000 emails:

The easy stuff…

  • Is it SPAM? This may seem like an obvious step but just in case, report SPAM to Gmail. This is better than just deleting because it prevents the sender from being able to contact you again. If you don’t recognize the sender or if it looks suspicious, hovering your mouse over the sender’s name will show you the actual email address of the sender. If it doesn’t look legit, report SPAM.
  • Is this something I can unsubscribe from? I encourage you to get real familiar with that “unsubscribe” button. Sure it can be nice to be notified of a flash sale from your favorite online store, or get updates from an organization you support, but there are other ways to keep up with these things that don’t involve email. Unsubscribing is the gift that keeps on giving because it will prevent additional email clutter in the future.
  • Can I delete this? If so, delete!
  • Too nervous to delete? Don’t need it now, but worried you might need that email later? Archive it.
  • Does it have info you want to save but don’t need in your inbox? Use Evernote’s “Clip” function to save that recipe you wanted or gift idea for a friend. Then delete or archive it.

The harder part…now that you’ve cleared out what is likely the majority of your email, what remains are the items that require a bit more effort and attention. For me, that was about 200 emails.

  • Create a folder and name it something like “Action required”
  • Move all of the remaining emails in your inbox into that folder.
  • Reply to or otherwise deal with as many of these emails as you can right now, starting with the oldest ones and working your way up to the present. I think I did about 50-60 before my eyes started to cross.
  • Archive all of the emails in the “Action required” folder. You will still be able to access them in that folder, but they will no longer appear in your regular inbox.
  • Going forward, in addition to dealing with your new email (explained further in the next section), set a goal for yourself to go through the remainder of your emails still in the “Action required” folder. It can be 10 a day, or 50 every Saturday, whatever goal works best for you to once and for all deal with those remaining emails.

Phase Two: Keeping your inbox clutter-free

3. Only open your email when you are prepared to take action

I try to adhere to this rule: I only open an email once.  This means I generally don’t allow myself to read the email until I have time to respond or otherwise deal with it. For most people, this will likely mean checking your email less frequently throughout the day…and that is the point of this whole exercise, to be less chained to our inboxes. When you sit down to look at your inbox continue the practices from the first phase: unsubscribe, delete, or archive whenever possible, then clip, reply to, or forward the rest. Here are some ideas for cutting down the number of times you check email per day :

Here are some ideas for cutting down the number of times you check email per day:

  • Disable email notifications on your phone. If you only do one of these tips, I recommend this one. Email notifications (and really any notifications) on your phone trigger addictive responses in our brains. The more we get them, the more we want them.
  • Manually log in and out of your email account every time you use it. Don’t use auto-fill. I use a complicated password that is a pain to enter so that I can’t just lazily type it in the field every time I get the urge to check it.
  • Don’t check your email first thing in the morning. To start, don’t sleep next to your phone and charge it in another part of the house. If you’re like me and you still can’t help yourself, I recommend Freedom, which allows you to block access to your email’s server until a time you set it to (for me, it’s 10:30am).
  • Use plug-ins like Inbox Pause to stop new emails from coming in until you tell it to, or StayFocusd to limit the amount of time you can spend on email each day.
  • Knowledge is power. Use plug-ins like RescueTime that can tell you exactly how long you spend on each website and use apps like Checky and Moment to get an idea of how often you check your phone and how long you are spending on it.

4. Use the “Send+Archive” Button

This feature can be toggled on and off in your Gmail Settings>General under “Send and Archive.” Being able to send and archive in a single action has done wonders for keeping my inbox clear. If you’re worried about forgetting to follow up, you can use Boomerang to schedule the email to come back to your inbox within a desired timeframe if there is no reply.

5. If you can’t get through them all, use your “Action required” folder

If you aren’t able to make it through your entire inbox in one sitting, put emails in the “Action required” folder you created in the first phase so you can get to it in the next day or two and then archive them so they are out of your main inbox. The next time, before looking at any new emails, I try to clear out the emails lingering in the “Action required” folder first.

6. Pick a magic number.

Emails will pile up from time to time. Busy periods happen and we can’t always follow all of these steps as strictly as we’d like. For that reason, I picked a “magic number,” otherwise known as the maximum number of emails I will allow to pile up in my inbox before I must do something about it. That number for me is 50. What this means is, if my inbox gets to 50, I absolutely must deal with it and get it back down to 0 by the end of the day. What I found was the I usually won’t let it get anywhere near 50 and I tend to want to clear it out before it gets close to 50, but I know that that magic number is there as a failsafe, just in case.

When I started writing this article this morning, I felt pretty good about the fact that my current inbox number was 17. But then I decided to look into all of Gmail’s Inbox Tabs (the optional feature where your mail is sorted into “Primary,””Social,” “Promotions,” “Updates,” and “Forums,”) and realized that the true number lurking was 49! I immediately disabled the tabs feature because I saw it was allowing me to neglect emails because they were hiding behind my “Primary” tab. For a while the sorting feature was nice, but I think I’d rather see all of my email on a single screen to avoid a creeping inbox in the future. Needless to say I have some work to do tonight to get my inbox back to 0.

7. Use Gmail’s filters to automate what you can

I currently use 39 filters in Gmail’s settings to automate actions that I always do for certain emails. For example, whenever I get an email from a student I’m TAing, I have a Gmail label that email with the name of the class and put it in a subfolder under “Action required”>”TA.” Notifications from a monthly subscription service thanking my for my auto-payment? I created a filter to auto-archive those emails. I also use it to archive or delete a few informal newsletters/mailings I used to belong to that do not have an unsubscribe option. I’m too cowardly to write them and ask them to remove my name, so I just have google auto-archive or auto-delete it for me. An email from my advisor is automatically marked “important” by a Gmail filter. Filters are great for sorting, labeling, deleting, archiving, forwarding, and much more. That said, it’s a good idea to revisit your filters settings once every six months or so to remind yourself what you’re automating and update what needs updating.

Optional: Create a “To read” folder

This won’t apply to everyone, but if you subscribe to newsletters or news aggregator services, I recommend you also create a “To read” folder in addition to your “Action required” folder. This way, when you receive newsletters during a busy time and you don’t have time to read them right away, you can save them to your “To read” folder and come back to them when you have a chance. This allows you to safely archive the email without losing them forever due to the “out of inbox, out of mind” phenomenon.

Round-up: Email Tools I ❤ 

(all the links to tools I mentioned throughout this piece, plus a few more)

For saving parts of (or entire) emails for reference: 

Evernote’s “Clip” function

For managing the amount of time you dedicate to email on your computer and your smart phone: 

Freedom (computer and smartphone)

Inbox Pause (computer)

StayFocusd (computer)

RescueTime (computer)

Checky (smart phone)

Moment (smart phone)

For following up on important emails, for sending reminders to yourself, and for “snoozing” messages until later:


For mail on my phone, I use Microsoft Outlook.

As a consistent Apple user, I have to be honest it still surprises me that my favorite email app is Microsoft (!) Outlook(!), but I like its powerful customization and intuitive interface. I have tried using Mailbox (which I loved but sadly is being shut down), Gmail’s own app, CloudMagic, myMail, and Inbox by Gmail.

Now it’s your turn. Add your favorite email-tackling tips in the comments below!



3 thoughts

  1. Being a hands-on sort of organizer (I just can’t get behind downloading automated things to mess with my inbox or other aspects of my device!), I found that setting up a series of filters for my gmail was what worked best for me. I created labels for everything “Advisor” “Dissertation” “Fellowships” “Misc” “PMJS” and assigned keyword/address filters for some (for example, a lot of the emails that come through the department about things totally unrelated to topics I’m interested in reading about go straight to Misc). This really helped keep down the sheer number of emails that pile up in my initial visual field.

    BUT I also know that I’ll forget about things if they aren’t IN my visual field, so I have my inbox to “show if unread” so that when things appear in those folders I know to click over and check them. Then my personal system is to read something, respond to it, archive it immediately. The goal is usually to keep only things that need follow-up/response lingering in the inbox (so I remember and feel bad about it enough to get to it), so on an ideal day I’ve only got 3-5 emails sitting in the inbox whenever I open it and they’re easy enough to dispatch!

    Liked by 2 people

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