How to tame your Emails and get to Inbox Zero

alt="sample email inox"

Do you ever open your email program and feel slightly panicky at the sight of 200 or more unread emails? If you do, you are not alone. We get bombarded with email daily and for many, it seems impossible to ever read them all, never mind respond.

One option would be to just ignore them and hope they vanish just like the dirty dishes in the sink magically become clean. Doing that you’ll find that in no time 200 emails turn into 2000 and 2000 into 5000.

Most of us have an ambivalent view of emails, the days when receiving an email were exciting because it was a new medium and only a handful of our friends had an email account are well and truly over. Everyone now has at least one email address and the ability to fire off messages from their mobile or tablet while on the go. For some people, emails literally rule their life, but this shouldn’t be. There is more to life than the ping sound of a new email coming into our inbox.

Productivity expert Merlin Mann came up with the concept of Inbox Zero where a person tries to keep their unread emails to zero or almost zero and spends as little time on emails as they can get away with. defines Inbox Zero as follows:

“Inbox Zero is a rigorous approach to email management aimed at keeping the inbox empty — or almost empty — at all times.”

Mann himself defines it as follows:

“It’s about how to reclaim your email, your atten­tion, and your life. That “zero?” It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox–it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.”

So how does this Inbox Zero concept work? Read on to find out tips and tricks on how to keep your email inbox under control.

Merlin Mann and those that follow him suggest the following best practices to tame your email inbox:

Keep your email program closed for most of the day and only check your email a couple of times, unless you are waiting for something urgent. That way emails won’t rule your life and dictate your to-do list. Far too many people spend all day in their email program responding to so-called ‘urgent stuff’. Productivity consultant Carl Pullein once did an experiment where he responded to every email 48 hours after receiving them. Everyone wrote back: ‘Thanks for your speedy reply!”

So, you open your inbox and find several unread emails, what do you do with them? We have learned above that ignoring those won’t make them go away. Follow the principle of delete, delegate, respond, defer or do. In practice this means the following:

Go through all your unread emails only once and decide what to do with them. Delete any email that is spam or contains nothing of importance. Consider unsubscribing from advertising emails, newsletters or anything else you don’t ever read.

Are there any emails that you could delegate to someone else? Would your PA, if you have one, colleague or husband be better placed to deal with the email? If so forward it to the right person.

Respond to any emails that require an immediate answer or take less than two minutes immediately. Any emails that need a longer response put them on your to-do list or pencil in time in your calendar if you can’t do them straight away. Any email that you can’t answer yet, perhaps because you are waiting to hear from someone else star so that you know to deal with it next time you are in your inbox.

There might be emails that have actionable items in them such as paying a bill, booking an event etc. Either do those tasks straight away or note them down to do later.

Now that you have dealt with all your unread emails it is time to physically get them out of your inbox. Some people think they need to create an elaborate folder structure and sort their emails into minute categories. Why waste time when most modern email systems have an excellent search function? I keep all my emails in an archive folder.

Okay, you say, I now know what I need to do moving forward. But how do I deal with the emails that I already acquired and haven’t read yet? Below are some tips to deal with your backlog of unread emails.

The first thing to do is sort your emails by read and unread. Leave the read emails to one side. For now, we just concentrate on unread emails.

Secondly, sort your emails by sender and then look at each sender in turn. Ask yourself the following. Is the sender a company or newsletter and could I permanently unsubscribe? Most emails of this nature have an unsubscribe link at the bottom of the email. Alternatively, you could use a program such as Unroll.Me that auto unrolls you from several subscriptions at once. Perhaps you don’t wish to unsubscribe as newsletters occasionally tell important news. Just delete all bar the last one.

If the sender is not a newsletter or company, but perhaps a friend or colleague, just delete them all or if you wish press the ‘mark as read’ button and transfer to your archive. Let’s get real if you received an email three months ago and you haven’t responded, either the email wasn’t important or if it was the sender would have pestered you in another way. It would also come across as rude to suddenly respond.

Now that you’ve tackled your unread emails let’s turn to the ones marked as ‘read’. Transfer all emails older than two weeks to your archive. This should leave you with a manageable number of emails in your inbox. With these follow the steps outlined in the first part: delete, delegate, respond, defer or do.

All the above shouldn’t take too long, but believe you me, you’ll feel like a big weight has lifted off your shoulders.

Feel you can’t cope and would like some help. Get in touch via my website or email me at