How to Keep Your Inbox Empty: 7 Simple Email Tactics

Inbox Zero - One Day at Time

The mythical empty inbox.

Also known as inbox zero.

For many, it is as imaginary as the unicorn.

Often talked about, but never really seen.

What would it take to get your inbox to empty?

You’ve (Always) Got Mail!

Have you ever gone to your physical mailbox and the postman hasn’t been there?

No mail yet.

So, you check back later… and again after that.

This is not the case with email. When you check your inbox, there is always mail.

New mail. Old mail. Emails that you just left sitting there to deal with later.

Too many people fight their email inbox like Mickey in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice …endlessly bailing as more and more emails flood in. 

The good news is that the email battle can be won.

By changing a few of your email habits, you can stop the flood.

Emptying The Full Inbox

To get ahead of your inbox you need to change your actions.

You need to stop the mass inflow of useless emails, while processing the ones that matter.

You need to act on your emails, instead of putting them back in your inbox. (Sound familiar?)

Here are 7 Simple Tactics to Keep Your Inbox Empty:

  1. One Day at a Time – The best email strategy is to empty your inbox daily. This can take much discipline and effort. If you are behind now, concentrate on emptying mail that arrived in the last 24 hours. Start there. Then each morning, empty back-to-the-beginning of the previous day. Within a few days, you will be above the fray and will have regained some sense of control over your inbox.
  2. You Touch It, You Own It – Do you open email to see what it says, but then simply close it? Practice “if you open it, you own it.” Do something with it: Reply, File, Archive, or Delete. If you can’t do one of those actions, you probably shouldn’t have been checking email.
  3. Batch Your Email – Do you deal with your email one-by-one? Constantly, throughout your day? Instead, deal with email in bulk. Process 5, 10, or 20 at a time. Make it a game if you must. Make tick marks on a piece of paper until you reach 20 emails acted upon.
  4. Automate Your Email – There are many great tools to automate the sorting of your inbox. Let tools and email rules deal with the majority of your email so that you can deal with the important few. My favorite email tool is Sanebox. Once set up, it is effortless. Sanebox keeps 90% of emails out of my inbox.
  5. Stop Using Your Inbox as Your Todo List – Don’t leave action items in your inbox. They will get lost and forgotten among the deluge of new mail. Instead, file them and add the task to your todo list.
  6. Schedule Time With Your Email – Email is one of those tough tasks that tends not to get done. Schedule time for your email. Mornings and end-of-day are best. Then you can deal with your email all-at-once. (See #3)
  7. Send Less, Get Less – A simple law of email: “The more you send, the more you get.” Stop playing email Ping-Pong. Stop sending unnecessary messages. Not all emails deserve a response, and sometimes email isn’t the right channel for a response.

Get Your Email Under Control

Don’t read your email, and not act on it.

Stop filling up your inbox.

Empty it every day.

Do these regularly, and you just might see the bottom of your inbox.

Question: How do you keep your inbox empty? Share your best tips in the comments by clicking here.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • http://www.kellycombs.com/ Kelly Combs

    I have 345 read emails in my personal email inbox. I could use some work in this area.

    • http://www.kellycombs.com/ Kelly Combs

      I’ve gotten it down to 110. Whew.

      • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

        Whew. :)

  • Jvs

    I have 6,546 read in my work inbox and about 8K in my personal… Its really the flags (i have 10 flagged emails) and unread (1) that make me worry.

  • http://www.mondayisgood.com/ Tom Dixon

    I make sure my inbox is at zero every day before I go home – doesn’t mean everything is done…just that everything is processed into a reliable next step (to-do list, calendar, etc.). One thing that has helped me be more productive is to set specific times to deal with email, versus having it open all day. Why should the most recent email always be the priority over everything else? Great reminders!

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

      That is the best habit… if you can empty it every day… and get items out of your inbox.

      Best way to stay ahead of the curve. :)

  • Janice

    Great post Craig, to the point as always! As I always say, time management is self management, both require discipline converted to habit.

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

      Thx, Janice!

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  • http://www.daytimer.com/ Jeff Doubek, Day-Timer

    #7 is huge! People leave way too many conversations ambiguous and open-ended via email. Each message you send should offer specific expectations to the recipient.

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

      Great point, Jeff!

      Every email should have a point… or direct message.

  • http://pilotfire.com/ David Delp

    The tactic that has made the biggest difference toward inbox sanity is turning autocheck off. I have to ask for my email. I never hear that ‘bing’ telling me there’s a new message without asking first. Talk about the worst worst worst kind of distraction.

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

      Great advice!

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  • http://www.lifewhack.com/ Peter Ewin Hall

    I’d add to point 7 – unsubscribe to mailing lists you don’t need. There no point wading through junk or setting complicated rules to deal with it. Mailing lists that send too often and are only about selling stuff should be the first do go – they’re the ones where the unsuscribe link at the bottom is in the smallest and faintest font!

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

      Great point.

      Side tip, I don’t mess with spam newsletters. I won’t even bother unsubscribing from them. I just let @Sanebox send them to the Black Hole and I never see them again. ;)

  • Giannini

    Well…I usually don’t get a lot of emails in my inbox. For the ones that are really important to me and about a something specific, I use filtres to concentrate on them. The “shopping” one for Amazon and Ebay notifications, or the “Jobs” filtre for job opening warnings. That makes me like my email better!

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  • Vickie

    Excellent tips. I’ve been a GTD’r (Getting Things Done) for about 2 years now and get my inboxes to zero on a daily basis. My focus has never been better because I don’t have to constantly sift through piles of junk and reference to find my to-dos. Constantly reprocessing emails is a complete waste of time. I always tell folks, “BOLDLY COMMIT TO THE EMAIL!” Decide what it is, where it needs to go, and move on!

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

      Awesome. Love the BOLD part! ;)

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