How to Build the Inbox Zero Habit in Exactly 21 Days
A complete and tested system for taking control of your emails
There are two ways to work with this article.
Firstly, you can read it from beginning to end and try and implement some, or all, of the strategies straight away. This might work some of the time for
some of the people, but the risk is that the changes to your email strategy won’t be sustained.
It’s a bit like crash dieting. Weight lost quickly and easily is often regained faster and easier.
The best way is to treat this article like a 21-day course. Set aside 15–20
minutes every day for the next 21 days. If possible, aim for a consistent
time each day. Take the day’s action, close the article, and get on with your day.
Some days are literally “don’t do’s”, and although it might be tempting to skip ahead to the next day, there is genuine value to you in taking a little victory each day and making small steps. Trust the process, because habit beats motivation and we really want Inbox Zero to become a habit.
Either way, I hope you get something out of this article, even if it only changes your attitude to email.
Maybe your next challenge will be:
“Now what do I do with all this extra time?”.
Shortcuts for the impatient:
Day 1 — Prepare
“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”
Welcome to the Inbox Zero program.
Good on you for taking on this challenge. In less than 4 weeks you’ll start to wonder how you ever spent so much time and energy on email, and you’ll have to figure out what to do with all this extra time!
Action 1: Either locate or create your “Archive” folder.
This is a folder where emails are not deleted, but are cleared from your Inbox. If you have Gmail, this folder is called “All Mail” and any mail you “archive” is sent there automatically.
Action 2: Make sure all your devices (phone, tablet, PC, laptop, watch, etc.) are connected and synchronized. That way changes you make on one device will be updated on all.
Is that it?
Yes. Small wins help you gain momentum. This isn’t a crash course, it’s a habit and lifestyle improvement.
Day 2 — Clean the slate
Action 1: Move all email to Archive, except for those received in the last 24 hours.
Quickly scan the remaining emails and archive/move those that don’t require specific action.
Action 2: Act on the remaining — now.
I recommend FAD: FILE, ACT or DEFER.
1. FILE : Move it to Archive.
- This is the action for every email you don’t have to act on now, and won’t have to act on in the future. Be honest and fair with yourself. Are you really going to act on 220 emails?
2. ACT (this is good only if it is 1–2 minutes): then move it to Archive.
- Some people find using a timer on emails a great help. Hit the 2-minute timer, and get it done! If you run over time, consider deferring for later.
3. DEFER : either flag it for follow up at a specific day and time, create a task, or set a calendar reminder — then move it to Archive.
- Before deferring, make sure you ask yourself if this task is really important, and are you certain that at some time in the future you will be happy devoting some of your precious time to acting on that email. If the answer is not a resounding “Yes”, then Archive the email.
Keep moving through your emails until the Inbox is empty.
In some respects, you’ve just reached Inbox Zero, but we want this to become a daily sustainable habit and we want to change the way you treat email. Keep going!
You may need to complete an additional step here. If you have other folders within your mailbox such as “clients” or “Fred” then all these folders need to be sent to your archive.
For too long we have treated our email inbox as a physical filing cabinet, assigning each email to a folder to make it easy to find later on. This is no longer necessary.
Filing emails causes more problems than it attempts to fix. Firstly, you have to decide where to file the email and what your system will be. Is it by client name, problem type, based on the sender, based on the receiver? This can make it very hard to find the message later on as the first step has to be figuring out where you hid the email.
You are also spending way too much time filing every email to enable you to locate the 1% of your emails you need to find later. Your mail app or program is great at finding things. Searching is fast and extremely easy.
So, file everything, fast. Archive everything in the same place. Search takes a little longer but you’re only searching occasionally for one or two messages.
This is a big step to take. As a compromise, some people drag the whole folders to the archive folder to allow them to think they can go back later.
Day 3 — Turn off notifications
“I read this thing the other day about how when you hear that ding on your inbox, you get like a dopamine rush in your brain. It’s like we’re being chemically rewarded for allowing ourselves to be brainwashed. How evil is that?”
Mason (Ellar Coltrane) — Boyhood (2014)
Action 1: Clean the Slate.
FAD — Just a reminder…
1. FILE: Move it to Archive.
2. ACT: 1–2 minutes per item — then move it to Archive.
3. DEFER: either flag it for follow up at a specific day and time, create a task, or set a calendar reminder, then move it to Archive.
Then, we want to give you control of when you check your email rather than constantly being interrupted.
Action 2: On all your devices, switch off all notifications — sounds, pop-ups, badges, alerts, counts, etc.
Switch them off.
Your mail will still be there, but you are not going to be interrupted constantly by notifications. This is the beginning of wresting control of your time back from email.
Day 4: Turn off push emails
Action 1: Clean the Slate. File, Act or Defer.
Cleaning the Slate should be a daily action. Your personal goal should be that, at a specific time everyday, your Inbox is at Zero.
The second step in taking control of when and where you read emails.
Action 2: On all your devices, switch off “push” or “check constantly” or similar for your email. The wording will be different on each platform. We’re looking for “fetch” or “check manually”.
Email is tricky and insidious. On iOS, for example, you might also have to switch off “background app refresh” for your email program. Otherwise, the emails will still sneak in.
Emails will download when you open the email app or program, but won’t be flooding in constantly and waking you up or distracting you from more important tasks. An added side benefit is extended battery life on your mobile device because it’s not constantly trying to see if you have mail hiding on a server somewhere.
Day 5 — No email before breakfast
Action 1: Leave your email alone until after breakfast.
This is important if you genuinely want to stop email controlling your life.
Give yourself and your family/flatmates/dog some of your real-time and attention before work email grabs your mental energy.
Email is a tool for the workplace — let’s move it to work time.
If you have a habit of sleeping beside your phone, move the charging point to somewhere not between you, the bed and the fridge. Good options include the study, the table beside the front door, or the cupboard under the stairs.
Action 2: Clean the Slate.
Day 6 — Unsubscribe
“Because the mail never stops. It just keeps coming and coming and coming, there’s never a let-up. It’s relentless. Every day it piles up more and more and more! And you gotta get it out but the more you get it out the more it keeps coming in.” Newman (Wayne Knight) on Seinfeld
Action 1: Unsubscribe from every email you can.
Try doing this before Cleaning the Slate.
Most mailing lists now have one-click unsubscribe. Use it.
A great free resource to help with this is https://unroll.me. It’s a service that helps gather and categorize all your spam and mailing list emails and manage them there. Yes, they do sell your anonymised data, so if that’s a concern for you, don’t sign up.
Because unroll.me doesn’t work for everyone, here are some alternatives that deliver a similar result:
Option 1: https://getunsubscriber.com/
Option 2: Search your inbox for the word “unsubscribe”. All the emails that appear are probably ones you don’t want! It takes less than 30 seconds to unsubscribe from most mailing lists.
Many mail apps now come with their own unsubscribe feature. This might be something you can do while Cleaning the Slate. Some services block this and you have to open the website and go to one of those annoying “we’re sorry to see you go” pages, but you will get there eventually.
Action 2: Clean the Slate. FAD (File, Act, Defer).
Day 7 — Send less email
“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
Action 1: The virtuous circle — send less email, receive less email, and manage a smaller inbox.
This flowchart on the next page can help with your decision making.
A quick rule of thumb is:
If in doubt, don’t send the email.
Also, start getting out of the habit of responding immediately to emails. There are three major benefits to slow email response:
1) People will stop expecting instant answers.
2) Some issues resolve themselves without your input.
3) You may protect yourself from the emotional instant response!
One method to handle potentially volatile or embarrassing replies is to write an email without entering the receiver’s email address. Get everything off your chest. Save the email to drafts and then go and do something else.
Give it some time, then go back and read the email.
Do you still want to send it?
Most people will rewrite the email, or toss it completely.
Day 8 — Use your voice
Action 1: Instead of sending an email, pick up the phone and talk to someone.
Although “sending a quick email” may seem faster, it’s the back and forth email thread that drags all the participants into a black hole. Suddenly you’ve burned 25 minutes just to organize a coffee catch up.
Often a 3-minute phone conversation can replace a dozen emails.
You may still want to send an email at the end of the discussion to clarify and confirm the points raised, the agreements, and any future commitments. It’s often handy to have a formal agreement in writing, and you’ll have the email tucked away in your archives forever.
Day 9 — Email rules for co-workers
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Action 1: Let your co-workers know that if the email they send you does not call for a specific action you will not undertake any action.
Please take note — this step is not recommended for people outside of your organization, and you should also be aware of your position in the organization.
I DID NOT send this email to my Board of Directors.
You’ve been warned!
By now you’re starting to notice how many emails are landing in your inbox daily that don’t require any action from you. You probably don’t even need to know they exist. However, even with a streamlined email management system, these emails are an ongoing source of distraction. Time to eliminate them and encourage others to respect your limited time.
This is the email I used:
I receive somewhere around 75 emails a day. This may not seem like many, except some emails may require me to make phone calls, set up meetings, run reports or actually do some work.
Also, remember that internal emails can come to me from anyone in the business about anything. From Adelaide to Zimbabwe, from Anthony to Wilberforce.
I work for you. I’ll do whatever you need me to do to help you do your job better, look after customers, negotiate with carriers or manage stuff.
There are 4 main types of emails I receive from people I work with:
1) Calls to action — “Marshall, I need you to do something about this”.
2) External escalation — “Marshall, I’m putting you on this email so hopefully, the external party I have sent this to realizes it’s important”.
3) FYI — “Marshall, you don’t have to do anything, but I want you to know that this is going on”.
4) Backside covering — “look, I did my job properly”.
This is what I need you to do for me, relating to the 4 email types above.
1) Calls to action — “Marshall — this is what I need you to do”.
Be clear about what you need. I’ll either do it myself, get someone else to do it, or tell you why it won’t be done — make sure I’m on the “to” line of your email.
2) External escalation — Nothing — make sure I’m in the top line.
Hopefully, seeing that you’ve involved me will impress upon the third party that they need to act.
3) FYI — Nothing — make sure I’m in the top line.
4) Backside covering — Nothing — cc me.
If I read an email and it doesn’t clearly ask me to do something, I’m unlikely to do anything. I’ll work better for you if I’m clear on what you want and need. I don’t have time to decipher code words and passive requests.
I’m not very good at guessing.
Cheers, Marshall Hughes
Chief Operating Officer”
Send the email. There may be people within your organization that question your decision making. Be gentle. Explain to them that you are on the road to email control. Encourage them along for the ride.
Day 10 — No email before 10 am
Action 1: No email before 10 am
Up until now, your habit has probably been to arrive in the office in the morning and check your email. This is akin to sending a message to the world asking for everyone else to set your priorities for the next few hours.
Let’s accept that if you want to knock over some important work first thing in the morning then you’re smart enough to set your own priorities. For many people, this is when energy and creativity levels are highest. Do you really want to waste your most productive minutes on sorting email and responding to the demands of others?
Resist the temptation to check email and spend the first 60–90 minutes of your working day on your priorities.
Then, at 10 a.m. (or later), Clean the Slate.
Day 11 — No email after 6 p.m.
“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing — that’s why we recommend it daily.”
Action 1: When you leave work, leave email. Don’t check email after 6 p.m.
Emails you don’t read after 6 p.m. today will be sitting in your inbox tomorrow when you check at 10 am. Then, if you wish, you can deal with it.
If it’s genuinely urgent, someone will call you or text or yell at you from the neighbour’s porch.
There are exceptions to this rule. If you are in a tech support role and for some reason, people still use email to contact you, then you may have to do an additional evening check.
There are also people who work across multiple time zones. If it is a requirement of your job that you are contactable 16 hours a day, well, I hope you’re getting well paid.
Day 12 — Ignore CC emails from co-workers
Ok, you’ve told them the rules and now it’s time to follow through.
Action 1: Cc’d emails from co-workers go straight to archive.
You can either do this manually during FAD or set a rule or filter to automatically mark a cc’d email as “read” and Archive it.
Be prepared for someone to ask why you haven’t responded to an email or if you read an email that was cc’d. Ask them:
“Did the email ask for a reply, or was it simply cc’d?”
Remind them of the rules, remind them why your time is important. Be kind. This is a big change for other people too.
Day 13 — Internal email — out of office message
“Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.”
Action 1: It’s time to prep your co-workers for the out of office we’re going to activate tomorrow.
“Hi Team, as you have probably noticed over the last 3 weeks I have been working hard to gain control over my email.
Hopefully, you’ve also noticed that I now have more time to work with you and get better results for all of us.
Tomorrow I’m going to take it to another level and only check my email twice a day — at noon and 4 p.m.
If your matter is urgent and can’t wait, call me, hit me up on Instant Messenger, or come and see me in person.
If you do send me an email that genuinely requires my urgent attention, make sure you talk to me.”
Your co-workers will respond in many ways such as “how can you?”, or “are you out of your mind?”, etc.
The best way to counter these concerns is to remind them of all the times when email cannot be checked — in meetings, when you’re asleep, when you’re driving, when you’re in the air (depending on the airline), when you’re in the bathroom, etc.
We have all survived this long without checking emails every minute of every hour, 24 hours a day. All you are doing is restricting your wasted email time, and providing yourself with some breathing space.
Day 14 — Out of office — internal
Action 1: Activate your “out of office”, “vacation” or “away from email” message to send the following to everyone within your business or organization.
The following email is almost entirely taken from The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss, and is encouraged by him, and therefore by me, to be copied. If you haven’t got a copy of The Four Hour Work Week, get one. It’s brilliant.
“Hi esteemed colleagues,
Due to a high workload, I am currently checking and responding to email twice daily at 12 noon and 4 p.m., Monday to Friday.
If your email cannot wait until either 12 noon or 4 p.m. please call me on 04XX XXX XXX. If I cannot answer the phone, please leave a message and I will call you back.
If you wish to schedule a phone call or meeting, please visit https://calendly.com/(My unique ID) and choose a time convenient for you.
Thank you for understanding this move to more efficiency and better effectiveness. It helps me to accomplish more to serve you better.
Thanks and regards,
Marshall Hughes 04XX XXX XXX”
Ensuring your phone number is on there is important. Also, returning phone calls is now important or people will lose faith in what you’ve promised. They’ll revert to email, or start hassling your boss.
Be prepared for the people who didn’t read your email yesterday to confront you the first time they see this. Again, tell them about planes, meetings and sleep.
And then give yourself a massive pat on the back. Controlling the expectations of others when they send you an email is a monumental step on the way to not having to worry about email, ever!
Day 15 — No email after 5 p.m.
“My inbox is often just another distraction, a shimmering piece of candy that wants all the attention”
Action 1: No email after 5 p.m.
There will be fewer emails in your inbox on most occasions, but we’re still in a transition phase. Although we’re telling people we’re not checking all the time, it’s a best to just keep an eye on things and relax the rules.
Not everyone paid attention to your email warnings.
Importantly you should still remember to not reply immediately unless it is a genuinely urgent email you have discussed with someone. You’re now training your co-workers to play by your rules.
Day 16 — Hide your email apps
Action 1: Hide the email app on your phone, desktop, etc.
By default, most operating systems put email in the primary real estate on the front page, the first shortcut or the action bar.
Put it somewhere else. Out of sight, out of mind. With your mail app hidden there is less chance of mindlessly checking email while standing in line for coffee or whilst sitting in a meeting.
When it comes time for you to choose to check email or send an email, the mail app will still be there. But you are now in control.
You’re now at the centre of a new hub of Inbox Zero excellence. Check email and Clean the Slate at 10 a.m. (just in case anyone missed the memo), noon and 4 p.m.
For more detail on how to better manage the distractions on your phone, I highly recommend Tony Stubbledine’s article — How to Configure Your iPhone to Work for You, Not Against You.
Day 17 — External email key contacts — out of office
Action 1: It’s time to prepare your significant external contacts for the out of office we’re going to activate tomorrow.
For many, this is a bigger step than managing the contacts within your business. It will be okay, stay on target!
“Dear really important person,
As you have probably seen over the last 3 weeks I have been working hard to gain control over my email.
Hopefully, you’ve also noticed that I now have more time to work with you and get better results for all of us.
Next week I’m going to take it to another level and only check my email twice a day — at noon and 4 p.m.
If your matter is urgent and can’t wait, please do not hesitate to call me or come and see me in person.
If you do send me an email that requires my urgent attention, and it is urgent, please make sure you talk to me and I will check my email for you.”
By now you should be pretty good at handling the frightened objections.
However, as your goal is to be more helpful and effective, your clients and suppliers will grasp that this is a better outcome for them. They are going to be able to get hold of you when they need you.
If they are still concerned, point to your successes and the big smile on your face. Share that Zen-like feeling of serenity you experience standing in line waiting for your espresso while everyone else is checking emails on their phones.
Or, share this article with them.
Day 18 — Out of office — external
“Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”
Action 1: Now update your out of office message to include everyone who sends you an email.
The same message you used internally will continue to work.
In the 45 years since I activated this message, I have had only one angry phone call and it went something like:
- Manager at Customer X: “Marshall, why didn’t you respond to Rob’s urgent email he sent at 730 this morning?”
- Me: “I don’t check my email at 730 in the morning — you’ve seen my out of office message. I don’t think Rob called me, I don’t have a missed call.”
- Manager at Customer X: (aside) “Rob, did you call Marshall this morning when it was urgent?”
Rob: “No, I emailed him”.
Manager at Customer X to me: “He didn’t call. Our bad. What can you do to get me out of this mess?”
That’s it, in 5years, and I work in logistics. Logistics is a Latin word meaning “things go wrong all the time”.
Don’t check your email, but do answer your phone, especially when it’s Rob at 730 in the morning.
Day 19 — Check email at noon and 4 p.m.
Action 1: Check email at noon and 4 p.m.
This is it! By batching your email time and reducing the number of emails you have to manage you are probably saving yourself at least 8 hours a week.
That’s technically a full day, and that time is now being spent on productive work time, mental or physical pauses, and home or social time.
Look for feedback from your external contacts and make sure you answer calls and respond to voicemails. Be the super reliable, relaxed, dependable and productive person you want to be.
Day 20 — Unsubscribe and clean the slate
“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Action 1: Revisit your unsubscribe list if you haven’t for a while.
I recommend checking your unsubscribes on a monthly basis so you can dump all the spam you inadvertently signed up for when you signed up for “free” trials.
Action 2: Clean the Slate.
1. FILE: Move it to Archive.
2. ACT: Then move it to Archive.
3. DEFER: Either flag it for follow up at a specific day and time, create a task, or set a calendar reminder — then move it to Archive.
4. Close email.
Share what you have learned with your co-workers. Be generous with all this spare effective time you have.
Day 21 — Congratulations!
21 days of effort. You have built a sustainable habit.
Congratulations. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
Spread the word, enjoy your sense of control. If you have time, drop me a message and let me know what you liked, or what you didn’t.
Remember, you have the required knowledge, skills and strategies. Inbox Zero is working for you as a sustained, daily habit. Nothing can stop you!
Day 22 — Beyond Inbox Zero
“One more thing…”
The basic principles behind Inbox Zero — focus on what’s important, accept that not everything can be accomplished and make your priorities your priorities — don’t just apply to email.
Whether it’s parenting, daily productivity, or learning, the principles can be applied to almost anything.
Your challenge, now, is to explore other areas of your life and see if the principles do apply for you.
How much more effective time can you create?