The original concept of “Inbox Zero” – or what we might consider an empty inbox – was developed by productivity expert Merlin Mann.
According to Mann, the “zero” is not a reference to the number of messages in an inbox. Instead, it is “the amount of time an employee’s brain is in her or his inbox.”
This distinction is key.
Anyone can open up their email, “Select All” and delete. Voila – “Inbox Zero!”
But that would only last until the next email arrived – and it always does.
Our team at InboxDone.com have spent the last four years studying the psychology and application necessary to achieve Inbox Zero, and we successfully empower our clients with the Inbox Zero outcome.
We’re going to share our best systems and processes – broken down into 7 steps – to keep your inbox free from clutter and your mind focused on what matters.
You can skip ahead straight to our 7 steps by clicking here.
This is a summary of what you are about to learn:
- Why your brain loves short-term goals and how you can use that to your advantage
- Rules you can apply to every email to determine if it is essential
- What parts of your inbox you can automate
- What software is worth incorporating into your inbox
- How to retrain the expectations of your recipients
Let’s now discuss why Inbox Zero is so hard to achieve, and what might stop you from achieving it without the proper systems in place.
The Psychology Of “Inbox Zero”
Part of the reason we love email so much is that we are wired to crave completion.
In her book, The Entrepreneurial Instinct: How Everyone Has the Innate Ability to Start a Successful Business, author Monica Mehta explores the role of brain chemistry in goal setting.
She explains that each time your brain perceives “success,” it releases a chemical called dopamine (what is dopamine).
Your brain releases dopamine when you experience instant gratification. The dopamine cycle moves through motivation, reward, and reinforcement.
When dopamine flows into the brain’s reward pathway (the part responsible for pleasure, learning and motivation), you not only feel greater concentration, but are inspired to re-experience the activity that caused the chemical release in the first place.
Your brain likes short-term goals.
Chipping away at your email gives you this sense of satisfaction. The user interface of an inbox is essentially one long to-do list.
Respond, delete, archive, forward – one by one, you make your way down the list, and each item requires action. Each time you take action, you experience the dopamine release.
You wake up and log in to your inbox. 60 new emails. You scan, you select, you work your way back down to zero.
But here’s the problem…
While you attend to your inbox, you have the false sensation of advancing toward a larger goal. But the moment you close the tab, the target moves further into the distance as more messages roll in.
Plus, the time you spend in your inbox is not necessarily time spent moving towards that larger goal. Most inboxes are full of time wasting emails rather than a list of your most critical tasks.
Why Is Inbox Zero So Difficult To Achieve?
Perhaps you keep your email tab open in your browser. Each time you see a (1) appear, you interrupt your workflow to address the interruption. Or, you try to ignore it, and the number keeps ticking upwards until you feel like it can no longer be ignored.
Therein lies the struggle to attain “Inbox Zero.” If it is not properly addressed, it is an ever-moving target.
The reward of Inbox Zero is the creation of an uninterrupted, meaningful and distraction-free space to get work done.
You can choose to direct constant energy towards your inbox so as to mediate and manage the never-ending flow of messages. But, this will make staying engaged with meaningful work nearly impossible. So, what can be done?
As we discussed earlier, Inbox Zero doesn’t mean zero emails. It means your perceptions and expectations surrounding the messages in your inbox take up zero space in your mind.
In practice, this looks like a systematized, well-oiled machine that turns your inbox into a clean, organized and productivity-inducing place.
Here’s what you’ll need to do to achieve that.
The 7 Steps To Inbox Zero
It’s possible to eliminate the mental exertion that comes from keeping up with a chaotic inbox. We do this for our clients every day.
If you choose to tackle this yourself, here are the seven steps you’ll need to follow to make Inbox Zero a reality:
- Eliminate All Nonessential Emails
- Look For Patterns In Your 100 Most Recent Emails, And Begin To Categorize Accordingly
- Designate And Utilize Folders To Keep Messages Organized
- Create A Template Library So Your Common Responses Can Be Easily Replicated
- Dedicate Time To Check Your Email And Then Do It With Intention
- Retrain Recipient Expectations
- Bring On An Email Virtual Assistant
Let’s now dive into each step.
Step One: Eliminate All Nonessential Emails
That restaurant you dined at five years ago wants to alert you to a new menu item. Netflix wants to alert you to a show you might like. Amazon is recommending 10 microwaves similar to the one you browsed last week.
These emails that you probably ignore are mixed in with more important ones: A client wants to schedule a call. A prospect has a question about the demo you sent over. The guest you’ve been trying to get on your podcast finally responded.
Imagine if the only emails that showed up in your inbox were the important ones, instead of software alerts, new product launches, random requests from strangers, and so on.
The journey to Inbox Zero begins by making this a reality, and it can be done in two phases: Unsubscribe and Archive.
You may not even remember all the email lists you’ve signed up for, or which ones you actually wanted to receive when you originally signed up.
In the same way creating a budget must begin with laying your monthly expenses bare, your path to Inbox Zero must begin with your subscriptions laid bare.
To achieve this, we recommend Unroll.me. The free service aggregates every subscription you’ve ever signed up for, and allows you to easily unsubscribe.
First you’ll see how many subscriptions you currently hold (brace yourself!)
Then, you’ll be able to easily un-enroll from any subscriptions that no longer serve you.
Unroll also allows you to “roll up” your preferred subscriptions into a once-daily digest. It will also capture all your new subscriptions into an “inbox” where you can decide how you want to receive the messages.
It might be overwhelming to see the amount of subscriptions you’ve accumulated, but this service makes it easy to un-enroll from the subscriptions that no longer make sense, while making more space for the ones that are important to you.
This process should completely eliminate any emails that are not from a real person or are nonessential to you. You’ll be left with an inbox mostly full of messages you either want or need to see.
If you are starting this process from square 1, it’s likely that you’ll have backlogged emails taking up space in your main inbox.
At Inbox Done, we recommend our clients archive all but their last 100 emails at the start of their service. We’ll explain what we do with those 100 emails in the coming sections.
By archiving your backlog – whether there is 100, or 50,000 – you’ll be able to start your inbox from scratch without losing any information that might be important. If you are uncomfortable archiving that many emails, you can always create a separate folder for these emails. It can be labeled “Backlog” or “Old Emails.”
QUICK TIP: Archiving is different from deleting. When you archive an email, it still appears in your “All Mail” folder and you’ll still be able to find it by searching for it.
By the end, you should be left with your 100 most recent emails. We’ll use these to inform the systems you’ll build in the coming steps.
Step Two: Look For Patterns In Your 100 Most Recent Emails, And Begin To Categorize Accordingly
By now you’ve designed an inbox where only the most essential messages enter. At this point, you can begin to prioritize and organize these essential messages.
Remember those 100 emails you were left with after step 1?
These will guide how you build out your filters and folders (more about these in the next step.)
Before you start creating filters and folders, it’s important to get a sense of how you can group your emails together in folders, and then prioritize those folders.
This will take time, but it’s key in the process to Inbox Zero. When we approach this step with our clients, we sort through their most recent 100 emails and use a chart to organize the information.
The chart looks like this:
You’ll begin to notice frequent categories appear: FAQ, Interview Request, Billing, Newsletter, Demo Request – start to group these together and be as specific as necessary.
Pay attention to the importance of the message – how urgent is the request? Does it require a response at all? Can you forward it along?
You should also start to notice the same categories being assigned similar grades of importance – for example, Demo Requests being graded as a “10” in importance, Interview Requests being graded as a “5.”
QUICK TIP: Built in Gmail tools can free up your time and energy even more. Make full use of them!
Forwarding: When used correctly, this function can save you a ton of time and energy, keep you on top of your deadlines and preserve your micro-decision making ability. If you are not the gatekeeper or decision-maker, need a second opinion, or are acting as a go-between, forwarding is an easy way to get the email out of your inbox quickly.
Snoozing: Snoozing emails is a great way to be automatically reminded of certain messages. It works well for emails that you needed more information about before you were able to respond. It also helps for messages that you haven’t yet received a response for, and need. You don’t want to flood your inbox with snooze alerts, but it’s a helpful function to keep urgent alerts top of mind.
Scheduling: Sometimes the best way to break free from your inbox is to eliminate the back and forth altogether and set up a call. If you don’t already have a calendar integration, we recommend Calendly.
Based on the patterns you observe in your 100 most recent emails, it’s time to move forward to Step 3.
Step Three: Designate And Utilize Folders To Keep Messages Organized
Now that you have a better understanding of the categories of messages you receive, and the urgency of each, you can build out folders and filters.
Getting Started With Folders
Keep in mind as you create new folders, you don’t want to end up creating additional inboxes that you have to keep track of.
If you already have folders in your inbox, do a quick audit.
Folders can make you feel organized and productive, but it can also create more steps to get to Inbox Zero.
If you have been using folders, look inside and see which of them are inactive. The emails inside the folders could be a few months old or irrelevant. Start to delete any nonessential folders you find.
QUICK TIP: When you delete a folder, the emails will not be deleted. They will be archived.
A few ideas for essential folders we typically recommend to our clients are:
- Travel: Confirmations, tickets and trips that you want on hand
- Documents: Documents, whitepapers, and guidelines you may not want to search for, that you can keep in one central place
- Finances: Information regarding things like accounting, payroll, and taxes
If your work (and thus email) is more project based, you might find folders with time-barred priority the best folder system. This method is recommended by Zach Hanlon, a marketing and sales expert. Here are the five folders he recommends:
Inbox: The inbox is a holding pen. Emails shouldn’t stay here any longer than it takes for you to file them into another folder. The exception to this rule is when you respond immediately and are waiting for an immediate response.
Today: Everything that requires a response today.
This Week: Everything that requires a response before the end of the week.
This Month/Quarter: — Everything that needs a longer-term response. Depending on your role, you many need a monthly folder. Others can operate on a quarterly basis.
FYI: Items that are information and worth archiving for future reference.
Depending on the type of work you do, a time-barred method might be better for you then a categorized method for folders.
Getting Started With Filters
Filters are an additional step to ensure that what you see in your inbox is essential. They also eliminate micro-decisions that can drain your energy as you attend to the essential messages in your inbox.
QUICK TIP: Filters should only be used for straightforward actions like delete, archive, file or forward.
To give you some ideas for filters, try filtering messages from certain recipients – like newsletters you’ve subscribed to – that you only want to read one day a week. You can filter these kinds of emails into a folder and read them on the weekend, or first thing Monday morning.
You can also set filters that will be triggered by keywords. An example of this would be sending any emails with the words “invoice” or “bookkeeping” into your finances folder.
Another example of a filter that can help you achieve Inbox Zero is to filter emails that you were cc-ed on. Often, these messages are less urgent and more “FYI,” and don’t need to be addressed right away. Filters can solve this problem. Filter emails you are cc-ed on to a folder that you only check weekly, monthly, or however often you consider appropriate.
The goal we push with our clients is to never have to write an email from scratch again. One of the easiest ways for you to achieve this on your own, once you’ve applied the steps above, is to create a template library.
Step Four: Create A Template Library So Your Most Common Responses Can Be Easily Replicated
Whether your inbox is flooded with support tickets, FAQs about your business, or interview requests, there is likely a common, scripted response you already know by heart. Searching for that script, copying, pasting and swapping out personal details is not only a nightmare, it’s a waste of time.
One of the easiest ways to automate your communication flow and save yourself time is by eliminating the need to compose the same email over and over again.
Applications like Gmail and Outlook allow you to store up to 50 templates at a time within your email interface.
Another option for storing templates is Yesware. This is what we use. It’s an affordable option to add tons of space to your template library. You can also create categories for even better ease of access.
QUICK TIP: As you build your templates, put your main action point in the first sentence of the email. This way, the recipient will see a preview of the point of your email in their inbox, and be more likely to respond.
With the 100 emails you kept, and as you respond to emails over the next couple weeks, start to look for common responses, or variations of responses, that you write. Keep a running list of these and start to create templates that can be easily customized depending on the recipient.
Once your most common responses are in designated folders, you can grab templates based on the response required.
Step Five: Dedicate Time To Check Your Email And Then Do It With Intention
Daniel J. Levitin, a professor at McGill University, explains why switching between email and “actual” work can be so exhausting.
He says our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network.
- The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted. This is what we also refer to as “deep work.” It’s work that advances your bottom line, builds your business, and leaves you fulfilled.
- The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the “daydreaming mode.” Think: scrolling through your inbox.
These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not.
A third component of the attentional system, the attentional filter, helps to orient our attention, to tell us what to pay attention to and what we can safely ignore.
When you are not confident that you can safely ignore your email, your attention will constantly split, or see-saw, and you might find you’re underperforming – not just in the mindful work, but also in the mindless work.
This helps explain why we experience email fatigue. In order to determine a better system for yourself, ask yourself these questions:
1. How much time are you currently spending in your inbox?
As you start out on your Inbox Zero journey, you might find it helpful to manually track the time you spend in your inbox.
QUICK TIP: Self tracking might feel tedious at first, but remember that even a few days can reveal so much about your habits and open your eyes to the drain your inbox is on your time.
Tools like Clockify or Toggle will track this time for you for free.
2. What time of day do you most often check your inbox?
If you check your email first thing in the morning, how does it make you feel? Productive? Centered? Focused? Or, does it make you feel overwhelmed, distracted and misaligned?
The point of Inbox Zero is to break the habit of compulsive checking. What time of day would you not mind checking your email? This will look different for everyone. Start to pay attention to the emotions that come up when you check your email at different points during the day.
3. How much time would you like to spend on your email?
Maybe it’s once a day. Perhaps you would even prefer to only check your email once a week.
Here at Inbox Done, we have clients who only check their email once a month.
You should be excited by the potential of how little time you could spend in your inbox.
Instead of reacting to emails as they come in, design a system that allows you time to engage in deep work and accomplish meaningful outcomes while leaving intentional time to focus on email.
If you don’t have confidence in your ability to ignore emails when they come in, try the extension “Free Pause” – this application will temporarily block new email from coming into your inbox until you’re ready for it, keeping distractions at bay, and keeping you at the top of your game.
Pay attention to the time(s) of day you feel most energized by email, and block time out on your calendar to attend to your inbox at that time.
Step Six: Retrain Recipient Expectations
Your clients, followers, vendors and partners may be used to immediate responses from you.
With your new system in place, you should feel comfortable sending out an email – either on a large scale or individually – to let your recipients know you are trying out new email habits and your response time might be a bit longer than what they are used to.
You can also set up an auto-responder to every email alerting the recipient that your goal is to respond to every email within 24 hours, but this doesn’t apply on the weekends, or after 5 p.m., or whatever boundaries you set for yourself.
When your email is directly related to your revenue, there can be a sense of urgency surrounding your inbox. Once our email only houses essential requests, it’s easier to manage these requests during the set amount of time you’ve allotted to your inbox.
Setting these boundaries will allow you to connect with your recipients in a more intentional way, and consequently serve them better.
Step Seven: Bring On An Email Virtual Assistant
If, after following Steps 1-6, you still feel your inbox taking up space in your mind, it’s time to consider bringing on an email virtual assistant.
The right email virtual assistant, or “Inbox Manager” as we call them, will not only manage the preceding steps for you, but they should also be able to completely take over your communication flow. Partnering with the right candidate is the only real way to achieve Inbox Zero.
We’ve written a guide to help you begin your search for an email virtual assistant, but in the meantime, you should understand the scope of what an email virtual assistant can and should do.
The basics of what an email virtual assistant can do include many of the steps listed above. This includes:
- Field and respond to your emails
- Create and manage folders
- Create and monitor workflows
If you are seeking more of a partner than an assistant, you can also equip someone in this role to manage the following:
- Helpdesk Support: Your email virtual assistant should be able to handle your incoming support tickets, pull FAQs and build a knowledge base from these types of messages
- Chase Overdue Payments: This can be one of the most time consuming and mentally draining parts of your inbox. Handing this off to a trusted assistant to resolve in a friendly way can keep your payroll healthy.
- Book Interviews: Whether you are being sought after as a guest, or you are seeking guests for your own content, an email virtual assistant should understand your tone of voice during the booking process, and can keep track of your calendar to ensure the appointments happen efficiently.
- Follow Up: Email outreach almost always requires more than one message. An email virtual assistant can create and monitor workflows to reach out to new customers, manage your lead generation pipeline, and reply to questions and objections.
It will take time to find someone you can trust to fill this role, but to achieve what Merlin Mann envisioned – your inbox taking up zero space in your mind – it is the simplest and quickest solution.
Reduce The Space Your Inbox Takes Up – Mentally And Digitally
Systematizing your inbox to achieve the inbox zero mindset is an upfront time investment, but it will pay off in the long run. The see-saw mentality is not sustainable.
Remember that the majority of time you spend inside your inbox is work in your business, but not on your business. Low impact, reactive and disruptive email habits makes it difficult to gain perspective and achieve growth.
If you would like to take it a step further, you can hand off the search for the right candidate to manage your inbox.
At InboxDone, we are experts at vetting skillful communicators who partner with you to not only manage your inbox, but also to grow your business.
If you would like to learn more about adding one of our specialist inbox managers to your team, you can book a discovery call here.. We’d love to hear from you!
You can also review all the services and functions an Inbox Done manager can take over for you.