Get self-organized using Inbox Zero

Dennis Ploeger on November 16, 2018

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I'm a proponent of the head-first transition to Inbox Zero.

Simply take all of your email and archive it right away.

Then deal with any new mail using the rules described here. Don't waste your time unsubscribing from newsletters that aren't going out any more, old tickets aren't being updated so you're not getting updates from those, so why waste time on them?

Secondly I think most people are doing it wrong by treating their mail client as a task management system.

Email is for communication

Tasks, tickets, calendars and events, etc., are all separate things which often use email but don't make the mistake of thinking you should be actively managing those things through email.

When an email arrives that results in a new task item for you, then add a new task item in your task management software of choice.

Most mail clients support adding and changing calendar events directly so by all means go ahead and use those features, but your calendar is ultimately a separate beast.

Deferring email is a code smell of Inbox Zero.

If it's not actionable but you need the reference: archive it.

If it's actionable: add it to your task list then archive it.

If it's something you need to reply to then do it right away: then archive or delete it.

If you can't reply right away: leave it in your inbox until you reply.

Deferred emails are a sign you're abusing your email as a task list, and doing it just to keep your inbox at zero means you're really just cargo culting the concept.

It's about managing your communications and information, not about the magical number zero.


I'm with Thomas here. E-mail often gets abused for other purposes, none of which it's very good for (I blame MIME types for most of this scope creep!). I would prefer to use the right tools (typically a tracking tool, a pub/sub information platform, and human interaction), then drop both e-mail and instant messaging completely due to the amount of distraction caused by them. Inbox Zero is a coping strategy to a bigger problem of unplanned communication...

A particular pain point I find with e-mail is that the source routed nature of addressing causes all manner of communication gaps, some malevolently used by manipulators to introduce or cut people out of conversations, more typically a lack of information on who should be part of something and no guidelines or training on using it well (IMO another coping strategy for a poor choice of tool).

OK, I feel better now :)
[edited to add this search link - this topic has been here a few times]


I agree to some degree, but task management software just didn't work out for me. I simply forgot to look at them.
Besides the obvious problem, that I'm not adhering to the concept of e-mail, I actually don't see the point to use two applications when instead you can use one application, that you use all the time.


Not to forget: setting up filter rules.

  • Automatically route newsletters to the according folder.

  • Filter Mails by projects and move to according folders

  • Filter out mails with "lunch", "food", "ill", "flu" etc.

I use my inbox as a reminder of what demands extra attention. After skimming mails in the morning, everything left in the inbox demands action as soon as necessary (not always possible): things should be done sometimes today, but not now. Or things should be done tomorrow not today.

But that requires the discipline to schedule honestly.

My inbox has a mental upper limit of 3. Never more than 3 items scheduled for "later".


The problem with redirecting out emails to other folders automatically is that most e-mail clients only poll for new emails in Inbox, and if you don't manually try to check for the entire folder tree, you may miss some e-mails.

Apart from that, it's a nice method.


Very nice tip. I have been struggling to do this for a while. Your tips are practical and have sorted my some confusions. One thing I am curious about is what email client you use for both laptop and mobile?


Thanks. I've been using AirMail for a while, but was unsatisfied with their support and switched to Spark now although I don't like their threads-only approach. But those are only available for the Apple people. I don't know about other ones


Thanks for your suggestions. I will look into these :)


Nice post! I have been using a form of GTD for some time now and have an almost empty inbox of max a handful of items.

I don't agree on the filters though. I do think they are valuable for some mails like confirmation of payments and the like. I want those mails but I don't want to read them. They should be there when I need them so I filter them by marking them as read and sending them straight to the archive. Mails with things like "birthday" and "cake" follow the same route. Reason for not deleting them straightaway is my fear of false positives.

There are some more cases for filters, but I do agree with you that a folder structure is too complex. I use a lot of labels in gmail instead and I apply them with ... Filters :)


Thanks. What I kind left out of the article was my actual implementation of the technique with keeping my current active tasks in my inbox, so we're alike there. But not on the filters topic. 😊


That's good; diversity makes the world an interesting place

Totally agree!


This post is fantastic! I use a very similar technique with my emails, I hate the notification circle with numbers in it... lol. But I do not defer.

This makes me want to build an inflexible Mail client that only has those four simple actions as options to deal with emails. I think the strict cycle of decision making with the zero inbox method is awesome!


I've been doing this for years. It's so calming, I especially love how GMail and Inbox both display a little landscape when you've cleared all your mail.

I like inbox a bit better since it represents emails as "tasks" rather than mail. I had to move back to GMail for work though, since I needed some features that weren't available in Inbox (like better formatting in email signatures)


Great post. It's important to stick with this. Use an email app that helps you stay on target -- such as Airmail or Spark. I like both because you can send email messages to Trello or other services to get your job done.


Many in this post is true. But one moment. I use filters for mail because having three mail list. This filter help sort mail in three different folder and this save my time.


And do you actually walk in this folder and read each of the newsletter posts? Everytime? In my experience people use filters to sort mails into folders but never actually read the filtered mails.


No. It's true. But this is archive email and I use this only for find information. I not reading this every times.

Okay, I'm using search for that.


The same here. My inbox is my archive. The unread mails in my inbox are my inbox. My worst enemy: people who send me screenshots instead of text.


Oh, yes! 😂 That really is horrifying. Another thing is emails with the main content in attached files. 🙄


I used to live this way and it was amazing. Life was good. Then I started working at a company where they prefer Slack over email and its just chaos.


Are there any e-mail clients that implement Inbox Zero?


I've replied to that somewhere above already:

I've been using AirMail for a while, but was unsatisfied with their support and switched to Spark now although I don't like their threads-only approach. But those are only available for the Apple people. I don't know about other ones.

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