How to Achieve Inbox Zero – Birds on the Blog

How to Achieve Inbox Zero

Perhaps surprisingly, zero isn’t the number of emails in your inbox, but rather the time it takes to use your inbox!

Productivity expert Merlin Mann coined the phrase Inbox Zero, but trying to achieve an inbox where all messages have been read and dealt with is likely not possible as emails are constantly arriving. Even if all your messages are read or filed, any sense of satisfaction is temporary, only lasting until the next email is delivered!

Therefore, the best control you can hope to achieve is good management of your inbox. To take a little time now and implement an effective system to save you time in the future.

Get to know your inbox

First of all look at all the options and settings to discover how to:

  • Search
  • Create folders
  • Implement rules
  • Set reminders
  • Auto empty deleted items
  • Change reading view
  • Choose preview pane position
  • Archive
  • Use categories
  • How to rename categories
  • Activate flags
  • Allocate tasks
  • Mute or snooze
  • Optimise display density.

Other inbox options to note:

If your email account segregates messages into tabs e.g. Focused or Primary, does this work for you, or are you missing messages?

Do you prefer Conversation view or to see individual messages?

How are new unread emails filed? By the latest, the oldest, by subject, who they are from, by size or importance etc?

Is Reply or Reply All your response default and is bcc shown when you compose a message?

You can amend all these options in your email Settings to personalise and suit your own individual requirements.

Do you want a quick fix to clear your inbox?

Archive messages so they’re not cluttering-up and confusing your view, but neither are they permanently deleted.

You can do this in bulk by ticking/checking the box at the top of your inbox which will select and highlight all emails, then select the Archive option from the menu of options.

You will then have a clear inbox ready to start afresh with a new strategy for keeping on top of your new messages.

However, if archiving read messages into one folder is too simplistic, Merlin proposed five potential actions for emails in his system:

  1. Respond
  2. Action
  3. Delete
  4. Delegate
  5. Defer

Create 5 folders in your inbox

Suggestions as follows (or titled by a name which means something to you):

  1. Action / To-Do
  2. Ongoing / Awaiting Response
  3. Delegated
  4. Deferred / To-Read
  5. Completed / Archive

Then when you access your inbox, unless you’re expecting a time-sensitive message which will require your immediate attention, initially spend just a couple of minutes on each of your unread emails:

  • Delete the junk– if you have time, block, mark as spam or unsubscribe
  • Updates & newsletters– can be filed to be read later
  • Respond– to emails which require a very quick reply, then move to the appropriate file depending whether a response is expected, or the matter is completed
  • Action emails– can be filed in a To-Do folder for later attention, or even better, flagged or converted to a task.

This way, you will quickly clear your inbox and can action emails which will take more time when you have the time available to do-so.

Check your inbox Action folder first

Before you become distracted with new emails, remember to check your Action folder when first accessing your inbox for messages requiring your attention!

I prefer to use a number of different folders to keep track of my messages and to save those which may be required later.

Before you begin clearing out emails from your inbox, first think carefully of how you would like to file them.

You need to identify what’s best for you and your business. To choose folder/label names that make sense to you and consider where you would look if you were asked for information in a week or two.

Inbox folder suggestion names are:

  • individual sender
  • organisation/company
  • project/event
  • action/to-do
  • deferred/delegated
  • saved/to-keep
  • this month/this quarter
  • client/customer name
  • staff member/key person
  • team/group
  • ongoing/waiting response
  • confirmed/completed
  • newsletters/to-read
  • today/this week

Have a few focused inbox folders

Don’t be tempted to have too many folders or you will spend too much time figuring out where to file emails!

Remember, if necessary, you can always use the Search function to find messages.

File messages by dragging into the appropriate folder, or by selecting the email and choosing Move from the menu, or right clicking to access action options.

Once you’ve created inbox folders, why not implement a rule/filter to auto-divert regular incoming messages appropriately?

Use a news or content aggregator

Unsubscribe from newsletters you no-longer read, or redirect articles to a news aggregator such as Feedly, Netvibes, or Pocket. You can then read your favourite updates without having to access your inbox and be diverted by other messages requiring your attention…

If you have more than one email address, will you save time by accessing all messages from one inbox dashboard? Or will this cause more confusion?

I prefer to login to all my email accounts separately, but it’s an individual choice.

Whether you use Outlook or Gmail, you should be able to enable all emails from different addresses to arrive in the same application. An alternative is Shift which enables you to manage a number of email accounts, messenger and social apps all within one platform.

Dedicate some time to organise your emails and inbox

Work through messages already sitting in your inbox, but try not to be diverted into responding or taking action at this time.

Are there any messages which can be deleted straight-away? Work down selecting & ticking/checking any not required, then deleting all at once.

If deleting is too final, then archive emails so you can still access the message at a later date.

Select emails which need to be filed in a particular folder & move them.

Use the Search function to identify messages from the same sender or with the same subject, then tick/check to select them all & move into an appropriate folder, archive or delete in bulk.

How to keep on top of emails day-to-day

Turn off new message notifications so you’re not constantly distracted and schedule designated times to access your inbox.

Aim to spend 2 minutes maximum on each new email:

  • Respond, if this can be done very quickly
  • Move to your Action folder
  • Delegate, or allocate as a Task
  • File in an Ongoing folder if you’re waiting on other people
  • Archive or Delete
  • File other emails appropriately.

Manage Email Response Expectations

Why not manage expectations by adding a line in your email signature stating when, or how many times per day you check messages? Include your phone number so you can be alerted by a call, text or message about anything urgent.

Consider what you’re signing-up for and whether you want to receive email marketing, especially if you’ve purchased a product online. Apps and tools often send notifications too – update these within the individual app settings.

If you often need to send the same reply to enquiries, then save time by composing a typical response to copy and paste. Either save this text in drafts, or in an easily accessible note app (check out Canned Responses in GMail).

Have you ever sent an email then realised it was in error?

We’ve all pressed Send too quickly at times – haven’t we?

Ensure you have a good few seconds on the ‘Undo Send’ option to stop the message sending immediately.

I hope you found these instructions useful, but do share your suggestions too!

Here’s to a happy inbox and reduced email stress.


Feedly –

Netvibes –

Pocket –

Shift –

Author Nancy Benn

About the Author Nancy Benn

As a versatile Virtual Assistant with more than a decade of experience, I help overwhelmed business owners achieve more by assisting with those essential, but time-suck admin tasks that don't directly generate any income or bring in new sales. By providing flexible admin support, I assist and encourage entrepreneurs to focus on doing what they love in their business and what will generate new revenue by identifying tasks that can be delegated and outsourced. Operating virtually, I can work online from anywhere with good Wifi! Initially based on the Notts/Derbys border, since Autumn 2017 I’ve provided seamless assistance and support to entrepreneurs from 12 different homes in Portugal and Spain. After travelling for two years, hubby Rob and I now live next to the Med amongst the orange groves in Valencia, sharing our lives with two dogs and a parrot.