12 Super Easy Ways to Reach Inbox Zero (Backed by Science)

By Harsh Vardhan
Inbox zero cover photo

In one of his talks, Productivity expert Merlin Mann, who developed the concept of Inbox Zero, describes the transition of email from an ‘international network of hugs’ to ‘an avalanche falling on your head’. 

What is Inbox Zero? It is an approach to managing emails that will help declutter our inboxes and make communication as minimalistic and relevant as possible. The idea is to keep the inbox empty (or almost empty) at all times. 

The movement has snowballed into the creation of numerous apps and tools, and more importantly, an email culture focused on keeping us in control of our inbox, and not the other way around.

Still, Inbox Zero means different things to different people.

A goal for some, a dream for others and a chore for some others. 

What if it was just second nature? What if you could develop a mindset that just keeps you clearing emails without conscious thinking? 

This post will help you make Inbox Zero a part of your every day, in the most effortless way possible. Who knows, they might just inspire you to declutter more than just your inbox!

Go ahead; knock yourself out!

1. Make your Most Wanted/Most Unwanted list 

The way you prioritise your emails says a lot about the kind of person you are. We’ll talk about two approaches here:

  1. The Eisenhower Matrix
  2. Brian Tracy’s Prioritisation Mechanism

The Eisenhower Matrix

 "What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important." - Dwight Eisenhower

If you befriend practicality better than you befriend emotions, the Eisenhower Matrix—a theory based on the urgency and importance of the task—is for you.

The 34th US President (who gave the US its interstate highway system) obviously had a lot on his plate and this is how he prioritized:

Do (urgent and important)
It’s now or never
Example: An email invite to a board meeting today

Decide (important but not urgent)
You can wait to execute this email
Example: The accounts team wants the monthly spend data

Delegate (not important but urgent)
Someone else can do it for you
Example: A colleague asking you to proofread an article

Delete (not important, not urgent)
You can do without it
Example: Social media notifications

Apply this matrix to your to-do list and segregate your emails accordingly; you’ll not just be closer to Inbox Zero but you’ll also know how much attention every task or email is worth.

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Brian Tracy’s Prioritisation Mechanism

On the other hand, if you’re someone who thinks from the heart and attaches feelings to emails, Brian Tracy’s Prioritisation Mechanism is ideal for you.  

It is based on Mark Twain’s quote, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” 

Brian Tracy, a top sales training and personal success authority in the world, uses Twain’s frog philosophy to teach time and task management. 

You can manage your inbox based on this idea—that you start with something you don’t want to do so that the rest of the day with your inbox will be a breeze.

With respect to Inbox Zero, you can use Twain’s philosophy to prioritize emails and tasks in the following ways:

Things you don’t want to do, but actually need to do.
Example: Proofreading a 3000-word article that needs to go out today!
(Inbox Zero Implication: Move these to your To-do list and keep inbox count low) 

Things you want to do, and actually need to do.
Example: Responding to emails that require finalizing certain decisions, giving the go-ahead for something.
(Inbox Zero Implication: This will reduce more incoming emails regarding the same subject)

Things you want to do, but actually don’t need to do.
Example: Scheduling meetings. You can ask your intern/secretary to handle these. Filter such emails into a different folder.
(Inbox Zero Implication: Move these to a delegate folder or forward them to the respective person you want to delegate them to. You keep your inbox count low either way)

Things you don’t want to do, and actually don’t need to do.
Example: Cc’d Emails that don’t require you to do anything or promotional emails, that you don’t want and don’t need to pursue.
(Inbox Zero Implication: Delete these emails and head to Inbox Zero faster)

Though the Eisenhower and Frog philosophy have the same objective, they differ in approach.

While Eisenhower’s matrix has a practical, duty-based take on emails, the Frog philosophy lets you handle emails based on how you feel about them.

Who are you—Eisenhower (Duty based) or Mark Twain (Emotionally Driven)?

2. Declutter with joy

Japanese Organizing Consultant and Bestselling Author, Marie Kondo has given the world a unique way to declutter living spaces. Her techniques are greatly influenced by the Shinto religion and give the act of cleaning and organizing, a spiritual dimension. 

Marie believes in and practices keeping only those belongings that ‘spark joy’. Centered around the phenomenon of joy, Marie takes her clients through a step-by-step process of organizing and decluttering by getting them to keep what they really want to keep.

Deletion of emails could be a harsh step for many and that’s why people either avoid or procrastinate, but Marie’s joy factor could well be a gamechanger and help you delete emails in an easier and faster way. 

Marie asks people to hug their belonging to see if the object in hand gives them joy and then take the appropriate decision to dispose or store the object. 

Now, you cannot hug your emails, but you can surely earmark those that don’t give you joy and delete them in a click!

Kondo’s method avoids dilly-dallying to a great extent and helps you to take a quick decision based on a single parameter: JOY.

3. Say NO to Uncle Spam

Inbox Zero’s Number #1 enemy - clutter. And spammers contribute to that clutter. 

So, how do you keep spammers away?

You know those helpless times when you get cornered by annoyingly enterprising salesmen in a mall or the time you have to fill in a feedback form at the restaurant and you’re asked to reveal your phone number? 

Suddenly you’ll have Ned Stark giggling in your head, ‘Spam is Coming..!’ You know he’s right. You decide to sacrifice a friend who is probably sitting beside you grinning away. The poor oblivious creature who doesn’t really know what’s coming; and you go ahead and write down his/her number!

But you can’t actually do this with email, especially when you unknowingly reveal your email while filling forms, surveys, or subscribing to some kickass blog (like this one..:))

So, if you can’t help but share your email, just share a shortened version of it. Use Capsulink to convert your email address to a short URL. Only people who really, really want to email you will go to this URL and access your email ID

inbox zero spam is coming

4. Don’t get trapped in the Zeigarnik Effect

If you’re currently stressed about emails, it’s probably because of the Zeigarnik Effect. 

In the late 1920s, a Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found out that incomplete tasks are remembered twice as much as completed ones, which leaves us (and the people around us) in a state of anxiety. 

And with emails popping up all day long into our inbox, this anxiety is not going anywhere. So, if you’re someone whose email management borders on obsession, here’s what you can do to handle the mail attack:

Pause incoming emails while you handle the others. You can use Boomerang for this. Feel free to play around with the ‘Inbox Pause’. You can choose the time period, make exceptions to some emails—anything at all, the ball is in your box! Inbox Pause makes Inbox Zero a stress-free affair.

Leave an Out of Office message for all your clients and colleagues when you’re away for a holiday so that you don’t find yourself sneaking back to your phone/laptop all the time. Plus, you will not have to get back to a loaded inbox.

out of office inbox zero

5. Touch, sort, and move on!

The ‘touch it once’ rule dates back to a very long time ago when the world ran on paperwork. This very old but profound rule says that once you touch a piece of paper you never touch it again, so it forces you to deal with it then and there, which is great. 

But what if, for the fear of handling, something keeps you from going to it in the first place. 

The procrastinator professionals will simply delay replying to someone just because they’ll have to then follow up and you know...work!

So, if you are someone who likes taking time with things, instead of letting your emails pile up in your inbox just sort them into ‘To dos’ or ‘In progress’ or ‘Done’. Sortd is an app in Gmail which allows you to do this. 

Gmail also gives you the opportunity to star your emails and come back to them when you can.

This way, your inbox will continue to make its way to the Zen Zero destination, while you handle your affairs behind the scenes.

6. Filter the bad guys — focus on the good guys

Did you know that the urgency attached to a call is almost equal to the urgency attached to an email? Hard to believe, right? 

A study was carried out to evaluate the effects of email interruptions with the employees of Danwood Group. The findings suggested that employees would react to a mail within 6 seconds—that’s equal to the reaction time on telephone calls. The recovery time (the amount of time the user takes to get back to original work after reacting to the email) was 64 seconds; that was less than recovery time seen with telephone calls. But with more and more emails being received, the cumulative effect is significant. 

So the question you have to ask is—is each and every email worthy of these precious seconds...?

One of the best ways for you to concentrate on relevant emails is to filter or unsubscribe from those that aren’t. Unsubscribe from promotional emails like coupon offers, bank notifications, and newsletters. You can use Unroll.me for a mass unsubscribe.

Of course, if you’ve voluntarily subscribed to a newsletter, but don’t want it giving you the mafia stare down from your inbox, set up a filter to automatically send it to archives, from where you can access it whenever you want.

As far as social media notifications are concerned, do you really want to dumb down your smartphone by still getting social media notifications on your email...?

Yup, didn’t think so. Head to your social media platforms, change the settings and turn email notifications off and let your smartphone do all the notifying.

#Fact Check: 38% is the percentage of important emails an average inbox receives. The remaining 62% are illegitimate emails and don’t deserve to interrupt your day.

The more you filter unnecessary emails, the less distracted you are and the closer you get to Inbox Zero! 

Productivity and a clean inbox; it’s all good!

7. Aim to avoid unnecessary conversation 

Defusing clutter that’s not created by us might be easy, but what about clutter that we create?

Every email we write, read or respond to is part of the inbox clutter. 

We don’t realize it when we’re busy shooting out emails like a loose cannon, but reality soon hits us when we see a big number next to the word Inbox: Inbox (an obnoxious number!)

Now, you might wonder, why not reply and be done with it? But it’s not that easy, is it? 

The rush in your mind translates to errors, lack of clarity, unexplained terms/jargon in the email. This will lead your recipient to write back for clarification and this triggers unnecessary and avoidable back and forth. Bearing the brunt of your blunders is your inbox.

How can you reduce the back and forth of emails and keep your inbox free?

  • Proofread: Look out for wrong grammar or punctuation, incomplete sentences, spelling errors.
  • Mistyped Information: Check if you’ve got the details right — date, time, venue, names, etc.
  • Add more bullet points: Adds clarity to your email.
  • References: If you feel certain documents or PPTs contain all that your recipient needs to know to move ahead, you can just attach them to the email so that there’s no scope for missing out on anything.
  • Don’t even bother with one-word replies like ‘thank you’, ‘yes’, ‘no’. The more clarity your email has, the more easily you curb one-word talk.

So, remember, even with inbox clutter, “you reap what you sow” holds good.

proofread for inbox zero

8. Sign off with purpose

Sign off with a signature that gives closure to people sending you emails (that don’t need to be sent to you). 

If you’re getting emails from colleagues about stuff that is not part of your job, you can sign off with a line “Received your mail. Please note, I’m not part of the design team, please send subsequent emails on this subject to the appropriate members.” 

Or, if you’re being pitched some freelance work you’re not interested in, then something like this could work - “Thanks for your mail. Unfortunately, this isn’t a fit for me.”

The idea is to write a response that saves you from a string of follow-ups (I am sure you’ve noticed how everyone follows up with superhuman persistence these days).

#TIPalert: Drop the automatic signoff and customize the email signature using Textexpander. Stop unrelated emails from taking refuge in your inbox.

9. Archive them to achieve them

The grandmother of all Inbox Zero strategies—Archiving. 

Do you start the day with a to-do list? If yes, you’re one of the organized ones. 

Do you also keep your to-dos right inside the inbox (as emails)? That’s not a great idea. You’ll be forced to keep checking your inbox often. And until you finish the task, those emails will just keep lingering around. 

Kevin Kaland of Wizone Solution has a neat way to deal with this:

“One trick that has always helped me keep my inbox count down is to extract the actual tasks or things to do from emails and put them into a task manager or to-do app

Then I label the email ‘IT-Tasked’ (so the label floats high in my label list) and archive it. This alleviates a lot of mental weight.”

Some of the To-do apps you can use - Remember the Milk, Todoistand Habitica

Stay task-free and clutter-free with an awesome to-do app. You’ll get your tasks on track, and you’ll be heading towards Inbox Zero at a much faster rate!

10. Create action-based folders

If you’re not up for the now or never mantra of David Allen’s GTD philosophy, this one's for you. 

Prashant Nair, CEO of Double Gemini, found it too stressful to decide the fate of his emails in 2 minutes or under, and so he created the Stack method to move towards the Inbox Zero in a breezy, stress-free way.

The Stack method treats emails as actions rather than messages. 

Inboxes sort emails by dates by default and even if we flag off important ones to bring them up, there might be new messages listed below that are equally or more important.

Nair sorts his messages as per the actions below:

  • Reply -  ones that need a direct response
  • Forward - ones that need to be forwarded or delegated to other systems
  • Meet - any event or meeting that needs to be scheduled in your calendar
  • Review - your CC emails or newsletters 
  • Do - the tasks that need to be done

P.S. If the above action words don’t work for you, you can use different terms.

Like this, you can keep your inbox light by sorting emails into thee action folders plus. This kind of zoning into one action helps you focus and complete tasks on time.

11. See them CCs OFF!

You really don’t need to keep SEEing CC emails—pack them into a separate folder.

If you’re someone who is a part of many groups or associations and are often subjected to various common announcements, you’ll find yourself in the CC category and that just means it's a mail that doesn't need immediate action—a classic case of FYI, unless of course the subject line indicates bad news/urgency of some kind. 

Pro tip: If you don’t want the FYI emails to hoard your inbox, create and filter CC:me emails to a separate label/folder.

Well, this works both ways. As a sender too, you should know better. CC someone only if you really really need to.

#TIPalert: If it’s something that doesn’t require you to make a phone call, why does it require to be on email? The rule is: CC someone if there is a task or action directed to them particularly. Else, don’t bother. 

12. Plug into Mozart and make Inbox Zero a happy goal

What if checking your email makes you happy? Or if it’s something you look forward to? Highly unlikely...eh?

To reach and manage Inbox Zero, you need quality time with your inbox. While some people leave that to how their day turns out (which is tricky, especially if you’re if you’re busy), others set and follow a designated time to check their emails. 

Either way, music can make things better. 

A ‘93 study called the Mozart Effect said that listening to Mozart improved spatial-temporal reasoning, and this set off an entire industry of baby products claiming to turn babies into geniuses using Mozart. 

Several other studies have proved that music is a real mood uplifter and therefore makes people happy workers. It’s not news anymore that music can make mundane repetitive tasks feel like a party! 

So if you’ve not yet set aside a designated time for your email management, this may well be an incentive to do so. And for those of you who head with a heavy heart and heavy mind to a heavy inbox, tune into Mozart; give yourself and your inbox a reason to smile. 

Inbox Zero will not just be a happy place; it will be a happy goal.

P.S. It could be any track that lifts you up - the roaring rouse of Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’ or the not so subtle ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ by Survivor.

Just don’t take your mind off the prize!

Wrapping up

This might be a cliche, but life is short and is not worth stressing about.

If Inbox Zero becomes second nature to you, you’ll have one less thing to stress about.

And we’ve just told how you can do so. Give it a shot?

You might like: 23 email management best practices to declutter your inbox

About the author

Harsh is the content lead at Hiver. He's jocular, loves dogs, and is always up for a road trip. He also reads sometimes.

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