Inbox Zero – How To Organize Your Inbox


About 10 years ago my email inbox was out of control and I though there had to be a better way. I had all sorts of rules “working for me” but it all seemed disorganized. Early in my career, I have also had the pleasure of doing desktop support for Executives. A common complaint was how terribly their email client performed. They would have tens of thousands of emails in their inbox. I then came across Inbox Zero.

What is Inbox Zero?

The basic premise is to keep your inbox count at zero or close to it. Use your inbox as a basic todo of things that need immediate response. Move or archive emails from your inbox that no longer require your attention.

Reminders are extremely helpful. Tools like Outlook allow you to mark emails for follow up with reminders while gmail has the snooze feature. The old school method is also to tag emails with a category and use a calendar item to remind you to follow up.

How Can I Achieve Inbox Zero?

Starting Out

The easiest way to start is to move all of your inbox into a new folder. If you use Outlook connected to either Exchange or IMAP, there is a good reason to split your folders to keep them under 10,000 emails. This is mainly for performance issues. Something like Gmail or G-Suite, simply apply a label and/or archive them.

Rules that auto move emails into folders are typically a bad idea. Disable or delete all of the rules you have. You want to process every piece of email that comes through with few exceptions.


This is the difficult part of the task. It requires a high level of commitment. Here is a high level thought process.

  • Is the email some sort of automated process that you just need to keep but not look at? This is one of the few types that I archive. For these I archive automatically if they indicate success. If they are error or warning they go into my inbox
  • Can I respond immediately to it? If so, respond and archive.
  • If the email is not something you can respond to timely, move to a folder and mark for follow up or use the snooze feature in gmail.

Automated emails that you do not even need to process should not require your attention. Many times we need them or have no choice in receiving them but may need to refer to them later on. These are ideal candidates for rules to auto archive.

One of the tenants of Inbox Zero is to be responsive. If you have an email but cannot properly respond, try replying that you received it but set a time when you can. Something as simple as “I received this but I am in meetings all day today and cannot fully respond until tomorrow”. This provides them with a response and an expectation of when to get an answer.

Keep in mind the goal is to get down to zero. Some days it happens, other it does not. Do not stress about not being able to get to zero. Do focus on continually trying to get there though.


Since this most likely requires more attention than you are used to, allocating time is important. Do not feel like you need to jump to your inbox every time a new message comes in. Wait for a few or only check it 15-30 minutes. The frequency of combing through your inbox is determined by your ability to context switch.

Context switching is the ability to stop one task and immediately start up another. This typically takes some level of effort. That level of effort is dependent on the type of task you were switching from. If you are very deep on a project, it may be difficult to “come up for air” and get in the right frame of mind to switch. It may not be worth it to try to check email often. On the other-hand if you are doing light tasks you may be able to check email more often without much difficulty.

Inbox Zero Sounds Like More Work?

Just like the title says, this sounds like a ton of work. What is the benefit? The benefit is never having someone come up to you asking you if you got the email or could respond. It may seem like more work up front but over time it becomes second nature.

Final Words

My philosophy in management and knowledge sharing is to share and exchange ideas. My way may not be the best but I hope that you can take my method and adapt it to your needs. If you have your own method, before this or derived from it, feel free to share it!

Author: David Chapman

I started my IT career in the very late 1990's as a systems administrator for a benefits company. I have always enjoyed learning new technologies and helping people fix problems which has lead me through a few different positions over the past 20+ years.