Inbox Zero: How To Keep A Clean Email Inbox (And Mind)

Wondering how best to manage email? Get to love the "Archive" button.

Four assorted-color mailboxes on black surface. @nxn, unsplash.com
Four assorted-color mailboxes on black surface. @nxn, unsplash.com

I am a final year student in systems and software engineering at CentraleSupélec. My school has an extremely active campus life. The main channel for communication here is email. Like, mass email. I mean, 30 emails per day, every day. I'm not even joking. So when I arrived in first year back in 2015, I quickly had to learn how to manage my inbox efficiently.

As a former software engineering intern, I had to deal with dozens of email per day too: JIRA notifications, company-wide announcements, CI/CD build alerts, etc.

I adopted a simple workflow to keep a clean inbox:

  1. Is the email irrelevant? Unsubscribe if need be, then delete it.
  2. Does it require taking action? Do it now, or keep the email until that's done.
  3. Archive it!

Then I discovered this had a name: Inbox Zero.

This non-technical blog post is aimed at anyone who has to deal with high-volume inbound email.

I will share how this method helps me keep a clean inbox and a peaceful mind. I'll show you how easy it is to implement and hopefully inspire you to adopt it as well!

What others do

My school of engineering has about 3,000 students, about 500 of which are in my promotion. As a result, I've been able to compare how other people manage large numbers of daily emails.

I have told friends about how I manage my email. I try to keep my inbox as empty as possible, essentially using it as a todo list. They also told me about their workflow.

Well, I was shocked to discover that some of them never cleaned their inbox. I've seen inboxes containing 7000+ emails, some of them from years ago! Downright horrifying. These days, I feel overwhelmed as soon as I've got more than 10 emails in my inbox. How can they bear having thousands of them?

A few reasons they gave me:

  • I don't have the time to clean my inbox.
  • I don't need to clean it — I get away with inbox folders.
  • I don't know how to clean it.

After digging deeper, I also learnt something incredibly surprising: some people don't know about the "Archive" button! They either keep the email in their inbox or delete it.

Yet, Inbox Zero is all about the archive button.

It's as easy as that.

Email is just like regular mail

Have you ever received mail? Like, actual physical letters? I'm pretty sure you have.

At least, I have, and I've got a very simple way of dealing with it:

  1. I check the mailbox once per day and take the new mail out.
  2. If it's garbage, I gladly throw it away.
  3. If it's interesting and I have to do something about it (like fill in an online form, or notify someone):
    • Can I do it within 2 minutes? If so, I do it right away.
    • Otherwise, I keep the mail front and center on a shelf so I am reminded to deal with it when I've got the time.
  4. When I'm done, I either keep the letter in my records for future reference or toss it away into the waste paper basket of oblivion (how poetic is that?).

I'm pretty sure that's mostly how you do it too. You don't even have to think about it too hard. It's natural.

Yet, I have a question:

Would you let letters, postcards and ads pile up in your physical mailbox forever, even after they've been been read and dealt with?

Sounds absurd, right? Yet, this is exactly what you do when you keep email in your inbox.

I have good news

The ideas behind Inbox Zero are simple. It's no rocket science. There's no black magic. Even better:

Inbox Zero isn't any different from how you're used to manage physical mail.

Let me repeat — it's the exact same workflow! You've been doing it all your life. You know how it works.

So there is absolutely reason zero (pun intended) for not dealing with electronic email the same way.

Still feeling a bit unsure? Let me show you da wae.

The way to a clean inbox

1. Start by archiving all your inbox. Now.

Here you are with hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox. How can you make sense of all that mess?

Well, I've already told you: the core of Inbox Zero is two wordsjust archive!

Contrary to trash, archived emails are not lost. They just go out of your inbox, and into somewhere you can retrieve them in the future. That's why my advice is:

You should feel confident about archiving.

The first step should then be: archive all emails presently in your inbox. Tested and proven by fellow students and friends.

And believe me, it's pretty relieving.

Gladly archive all your inbox. 👌 (Now.)

2. Deal with irrelevant incoming emails

Is your inbox filling up with tons of ads or content you don't even care about? You need to sort this out.

If it's a subscription of some sort, find and click the unsubscribe link. Then only should you delete the email.

If the email is a one-off, then the only thing you can do is delete it.

The important thing is that you should decide immediately whether to toss an incoming email away so that garbage doesn't end up filling up your inbox again.

3. Ponder emails requiring action

Sometimes, an email requires you to take action. It may be forwarding it to someone else, answering a meeting request, filling in an online form — anything.

When that is the case, there are only 2 options:

  1. Can the action be done quickly, e.g. under 2 minutes? Then, just do it!
  2. Otherwise, you should keep the email in your inbox and work it out it later.

The good thing about option 2 is that any read email in your inbox can then be thought of as a todo. That's also why I sometimes call Inbox Zero "Inbox as a Todo".

Yet, if you notice these "todo" emails pile up in your inbox, it might be worth investing in a task management tool, or a todo app of some sort (or get stuff done in the first place 😉). That's an even shorter path to a clean inbox. Plus, if it has reminders and alerts, you'll probably find it easier on your mind as well!

As an example, here is an email I would certainly take action upon right away:

From: elsa@company.biz
To: florimond@company.biz
Subject: Spare paper
---
Hi Florimond,

Do you have any spare paper left in the cupboard?
I need 2 sheets of paper for a presentation this afternoon.

Cheers,
Elsa

That definitely won't need more than 2 minutes. I can just check whether I have some paper left and answer to Elsa that she can pick it up at my desk anytime she wants.

Here's another example:

From: marketing@company.biz
To: everyone-including-me@company.biz
Subject: Rebranding Survey
---
Hi all,

We are working on rebranding our company and would like to gather everyone's input and ideas.

Please fill in this online form when you have some time: [Link]

Best,
Marketing Team

This will take more than 2 minutes to deal with. I probably want to give some actionable input to marketing as to how we can improve our brand and what values it should convey. As a result, I will keep this email in my inbox and anytime I check my email again — which might be when I have some free time — I will be reminded to answer the survey.

4. Just. Archive. It.

In any case, if the email is of any importance to you, you should keep it. By that I mean, archive it.

The reason why is simple: if you ever need that email again, you'll find it in the archives.

On the other hand, if you'll never need it again, there's no reason to waste storage for it and you should throw it away.

Free up your mind

We sometimes think of email as a burden. We need to "deal with it" or "sort it out" multiple times a day. It shouldn't be like that. It doesn't have to be like that.

On a personal level, I strongly believe that Inbox Zero has helped me free up my mind. It helped me reduce stress because I always know that things I have to do are in my inbox, and I can just look them up. It's a matter of reducing cognitive load.

And if you're a developer, there's a chance you're already facing a fair amount of cognitive load in your regular job. It only makes managing your email smoothly even more important.

If you try out Inbox Zero — let me know how it turns out! A few fellow students who went for it told me they love how easy it is to manage email now. Hope you reconcile with email too. 💻

Stay in touch!

If you enjoyed this post, you can find me on Twitter for updates, announcements and news. 🐤