The Case for Inbox Zero
Or why your email is one of those things you can control.
We’ve all seen it, the self-call out post with an inbox badge showing an unread count in the hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands. It’s enough to make anyone anxious.
But I’m here today to make a case for Inbox Zero, or at least Inbox Manageable. Because we all have a lot of stress in our lives, email shouldn’t be among them.
What is Inbox Zero
First some definition. Inbox Zero is a productivity philosophy that says life is better when you clean out your inbox every single day.
Now, I’m personally not an every single day kind of person, because executive dysfunction is real. But I am never in the hundreds especially when it comes to unreads. I do not have enough energy for that.
Why take the time?
In a life where not a lot is within your control, this is absolutely a thing that is within your control. Even when it feels desperately out of control.
Brains are jerks. We all know it. And that unread count is another excuse for your brain to latch on to the negative pieces.
Also, my old boss used to talk about the “pony in the poop pile”. It’s a weird story involving a guy buying a pile of poop and a pony was stuck inside and now he has a pony. Well, if your inbox is a poop pile it probably has a pony stuck inside it.
The moral of his weird story was to give yourself a chance at the amazing opportunities you’re missing by ignoring the hard stuff.
And yes, your inbox is hard.
I get it.
But authors like entrepreneurs are most successful when they’re ready to jump on opportunities the second they appear. Hesitating means spots fill or chances go to someone else.
Plus, it’s just really nice to know you have SOMETHING under control.
How to prune:
I am a massive fan of unsubscribing from everything. And if you can’t unsubscribe: Block. Liberally.
Sales people, mailing lists, promotions. They’re probably 90% of most people’s inboxes and they don’t deserve it.
My trick for this is to go from the newest to oldest.
Unsubscribe from the newest,
Search the email address that sent it
Archive or trash the rest
But Lana, you say, what if there’s a promo code I need or want? To which I say, then save that and archive it. Unsubscribe from everything but the promo codes. Sign up for something like Retail Me Not, Honey, or Rakuten. Yes, they’re data mining you, but so are the cookies in those newsletters. At least these are at point of sale and less intrusive.
Make Your Own Rules
If you can’t unsubscribe, or don’t want to, then make a rule to skip the inbox and go look for it when you need it.
At this point most folks have Gmail or Outlook, but even if you’re using a third party you can create rules on messages. They’re nearly always called “Rules” and the best way to filter is based on the email address they come from.
Be real with yourself
So once you’ve purged mailing lists, sales and suchlike, you’re left with “Stuff”. Stuff that COULD be important. Stuff that you might want later.
The first thing to do is be realistic with yourself. Do you need that STUFF that’s over a year old in your inbox? What good is it doing being in front of your face?
Is there a point where you know the older stuff isn’t actually useful? Time to remove that from the inbox.
Gmail and Outlook let you sort by sender and I find once you get the noise out of the way making choices based on sender is a lot easier. Prune it down so all that’s left are the important pieces or active conversations.
Archive vs Folders vs Trash
Personally, I do not throw anything away until I absolutely have to. For all that I’m an inbox purist, I’m an archive packrat. If you’re comfortable trashing things go for it, but personally I prefer Archive.
As for folders/tags, I’m not a folder or a tag person. I’ve tried it. The whole structure, but it does me no good. But I’m really good at searching. I recognize that others aren’t.
My suggestion is to put the folders inside your Archive rather than free-floating or under your inbox. Processing things away from in is a philosophy of GTD that I very much subscribe to, though he’s a really big fan of folders and if that’s your thing you should check that productivity method out.
When it’s important
So what’s left? Is it five things? Ten? A hundred? The temptation is to leave it there and work through it. But that is the slippery slope back into the poop pile.
If it’s important DO SOMETHING WITH IT.
Why not to use email as a reminder list
I fall into the temptation of using email as a reminder list as well, and sometimes I can get away with that. Personally, I do leave emails in my inbox until they’re addressed but the actual list of things to do lives elsewhere.
I’m that nerd who has set up a whole Notion for task management and processing and sometimes I’ll bring the whole email right into Notion. But that’s advance level productivity nerd stuff.
You need to put it where you put the things you need to finish. If that’s a paper todo list then add it there. If it’s post-its, put it on a post-it. Planners, to do apps, calendar entries, whatever your brain likes. Just not the inbox itself.
The act of turning it into an action or a reminder helps you actually figure out what you need TO DO instead of re-reading the message a hundred times and doing the same figuring out every time.
Be nicer to yourself than that.
Why not to use email for reference material
Some stuff doesn’t have a thing TO DO. Some of it you just need to know. But what it is you need to know isn’t in your inbox. That means you need to put it with the thing.
Is it trip information? Put it in your calendar entry for the trip. Or print it out. Or print it to PDF and put it in a folder. Whatever you do put it closer to the thing it’s referencing.
Again, as a Notion Nerd, I put all that stuff in there so everything is close.
Once you make all these choices on how you’re going to handle stuff going forward it becomes a lot easier to keep your inbox manageable. And on those days you need an easy win, getting it empty is definitely one of those.
I hope I’ve convinced you to take a few hours (days?) to really go through your inbox so it’s less stressful and more fruitful.
And if you happen to find a pony in your poop pile let me know!