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Inbox Zero. Two words which are whispered breathlessly by minimalists and lifehackers, as if it is the Holy Grail. As if all the world’s problems would be solved if somehow you got those 15,000 unread emails in your inbox dealt with and gone.

Referred to as the act of clearing your inbox completely, Inbox Zero has become a bit of an obsession amongst some, and I have to admit to being bitten by the bug myself. There’s something intensely gratifying about clearing all the emails away. The psychology of it lifts a weight from your shoulders, as if you are not held prisoner to your inbox. That you are in charge.

But how do you get to that exalted position of Inbox Zero?

“Is:unread” Is Your Friend

For the purposes of simplicity, I am going to assume you use Gmail as your email provider. But these tips more or less will work with any email platform.

Log into your email and in the search bar, type is:unread

This naturally brings up every unread email which is in your account. Now it is a case of systematically going through and thinning out the wheat from the chaff.

  • Delete ones which are obviously spam.
  • Unsubscribe from all newsletters which you don’t read anymore. There will be an unsubscribe link either at the top of the Gmail window or at the bottom of the email.
  • Make filters to redirect certain emails into their own labels. So anything from a certain organization can go into its own label. If you work for the ACME organization, make a filter and put everything from the ACME organization into a work label. Be sure to tick Skip The Inbox and Apply Filter To Matching Conversations.

Keep going for friends, family, colleagues and so on. As emails from these people start getting redirected into those labels, your inbox will start to thin out.

Start Deleting

Putting emails into labels merely moves them to another area. It doesn’t fix the problem itself. More of an “out of sight, out of mind” scenario which should be avoided.

I would suggest deleting everything unread which is more than a month old. For people with thousands of emails, this might be a bit of a radical move, but think about it. If the email was about something truly important, you would have heard back again from the person more recently. If it was more than a month ago, and the person hasn’t mentioned the subject again, it’s probably safe to nuke that 100-thread conversation about the company barbecue.

Now you only have a month’s left of emails to deal with, which is much more manageable. Simply go to the back of All Mail and start skimming through each one. 

Before you start, go to your Labs section and turn on Auto-Advance. Then when you have deleted or otherwise dealt with an email, instead of going back to the inbox, you will instead be taken to the next email. Much faster.

This will take some time, and obviously you will have new emails coming in after that. But having filters set up will mean that those new emails won’t be clogging up your inbox and there will be some semblance of order going forward.

How To Stop Things From Getting Out Of Control In The Future

Once you have got your email down to Inbox Zero or close to it, you need to keep it there. There are some things you can do to ensure that unread count doesn’t start creeping up again.

Switch Your Newsletters To RSS Or Social Media

If you use RSS, then a great alternative to email newsletters is to run them through a RSS reader instead. One free web app you can use for this is “Kill The Newsletter!

It randomly generates an email address for you to subscribe to the newsletter, then sets up a connected RSS address to put into your RSS reader. Then when the newsletter goes out, it will appear in your RSS feed instead of your email inbox. It works like a charm.

An alternative is to follow the person or company via their social media profiles. But if they post a high volume of status updates every day, the chances of missing something is high.

Encourage People To Contact You Via Social Media

Ask people to :

  1. Send you a direct message via Twitter.
  2. Send you a message on Facebook Messenger
  3. Send you a message on Instagram Chat or their new standalone chat app, Threads.
  4. Ask work colleagues and freelance clients to approach you on LinkedIn chat.

Encourage People To Instant Message You

As well as social media chat programs, you can also ask people to contact you via Skype, Signal, and WhatsApp.

Use Pocket For Links You Emailed To Yourself

Many people – and I have been guilty of this myself – use email as a dumping ground for links you want to keep for later. This may include interesting online articles or things you want to buy.

Instead of clogging up your inbox, why not use Pocket or Instapaper to collect them for you? I highly recommend Pocket and is one of the few premium services I have paid for.

Keeping Inbox Zero is an ongoing, never-ending effort. Keep the email filters tweaked, be selective in what you subscribe to, and keep marking unwanted email as spam. The moment you stop making the effort is when you will see that unread count creeping up again.