Email is ubiquitous. Email is a deluge. Email is a mess. But there is a way… a way to quell the torrent of spam, subscriptions, notifications, alerts, reminders, social media updates, promotions, confirmations and whatever else seeks to wreak havoc on your inbox - Inbox Zero.

This concept was first introduced by Merlin Mann during a Google TechTalk in 2007. I’ve never actually watched this video nor do I remember when I was first introduced to the idea of “Inbox Zero” but I’ve been very successful in remaining true to my idea of this concept for well over a decade and I’m here to say it has brought sanity and control to my digital life and it can for you too.

What you see below is madness…


…Madness? This. is. EMAIL!

Let’s Zero It Out

Despite it’s name, Inbox Zero is not about having nothing in your inbox. Rather, it is about having a repeatable process by which you can deal with each email you receive, which in turn gives you control over your inbox and reduces what remains to only the items that are either pending and/or actionable. Let’s walk through this process…

  1. Unsubscribe: I recommend a scorched-earth approach to unsubscribing to subscription-based emails. Unless you absolutely need something, click that “unsubscribe” button and be rid of it. Pro Tip: If an email doesn’t have an “Unsubscribe” link, mark it as spam or even create a mail rule to auto-send it where it belongs - anywhere but your inbox.

  2. Consume: A lot of email is simply informational. Anything in your inbox that matches this criteria can easily be archived (Step 5) or deleted (Step 6) once you have consumed the necessary information. If you find the information not-useful, perhaps consider Step 1.

  3. Take Action: Does the email represent something that needs to be done? If so, do what needs to be done and then archive (Step 5) or delete (Step 6) the respective email. If it can’t be done right now due to a dependency, see Step 4. *If it CAN be done but you don’t have time for it, simply leave it in your inbox until you can get to it. In this way, these emails will serve as constant reminders of things that need to and can be done.

  4. Save For Later: If an email represents something that needs to be done but can’t be done due to a dependency, move it to a separate folder (or label if your a Gmail person). I have a folder literally called “For Later” that these to-do emails go to. All of these to-do emails should go to the same special “For Later” folder. *It is important to revisit this folder on a frequent basis to see if there is anything that no longer has dependencies and is thus actionable. Here, you can do what needs to be done and then proceed to archive (Step 5) or delete (Step 6) the email.

  5. Archive: When you are through with an email but would like to keep it for later-reference, archive it or move it to a folder of your choosing. This will effectively remove it from your inbox.

  6. Trash: For everything else, trash it. You don’t need it. Get it out of your inbox. Pro Tip: Be mindful of what you are trashing. Chances are, if you are trashing an email, it should have never been in your inbox to begin with. I recommend unsubscribing from as many of these would-be-trashed emails as you can.

Wrapping Up

I’ve always fancied myself a minimalist. This mindset helps me make “tough” decisions when it comes to unsubscribing, trashing or otherwise being “real” with myself about what I need or don’t need in my life. I’m also a particularly organized individual, especially with respect to my digital life. Inbox Zero is a manifestation of these two virtues and is a philosophy that with some practice, can be exercised by anyone. With it, you too can reclaim your inbox, get things done and achieve digital zen.