Getting To Inbox Zero In 3 Hours Or Less

Photo: Ilya Pavlov via Unsplash

I always thought “inbox zero” was an urban myth. How is it possible that one’s inbox could have literally no emails in it whatsoever?

The last time I checked there were around twenty-thousand messages in mine. Lists of emails had been starred for later, bookmarked and begging for acknowledgement — the dutiful read, watch, response, or purchase that may or may not make my life slightly more whole.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a hoarder of information. I’m pretty much obsessed with emailing myself several times daily — links to videos to watch, tickets to buy, lengthy thought pieces, cute shoes — never to be opened at the fabled moment for where there’s actually time.

Let’s face it, emails can generate more work than they do pleasure. And if the case was in fact pleasure, my pocketbook surely wouldn’t be pleased.

I also have a terrible habit of staring at my inbox for moments on end. I sit unblinking and motionless, eyeballs glossing over at the sight of the never-ending list. Whether starred, marked as “important and unread,” or falling within the categorical everything else, without moving a muscle the energy meter on my forehead goes from full to hovering near bone dry.

One Friday afternoon I decided to take matters into my own hands. It was time to part ways with these missives from the past. They were slogging things down, preventing me from having the crystal-clear clarity I needed in order to have a fully productive day.

Here’s how I finally reached the ever-so-elusive Inbox Zero in less than three hours.

1. I took to email management tools.

Basically, if there’s a way to cheat through technology I’m going to do it. In this case said enablers were Sanebox and Boomerang.

I implemented Sanebox to filter out everything that wasn’t urgent. Most emails were automatically delivered to a new inbox called “SaneLater.” Urgent e-mails, as defined in this case as coming from the fingertips of real humans I actually know, arrive directly into my main inbox. Anything and everything else goes to SaneLater.

I made use of Boomerang, a plugin which I’ve had installed for years and never actually noticed. I scheduled starred emails to return on the day an action item was due. The original message was then archived.

2. I took the plunge.

The great thing about Gmail is that all your archived emails are still searchable (via the nav bar at the top). They live in a far-off place you don’t need to visit unless absolutely necessary, far away from your actual inbox.

Sanebox offers a simple and useful methodology for e-mail management:

Delegate, Defer, Delete, Respond, and Do.

After responding to, rescheduling, or filing away everything I could find that was timely, I did the unimaginable. I selected everything in my inbox — I mean everything — and *gulp* clicked Archive.


Sanebox has a tiny learning curve when it comes to additional features. Part of the fun is leveraging them for specific needs.

For example, I don’t always need a message to return if I don’t hear back from the recipient. I do, however, need constant reminders in order to follow up with people within a reasonably courteous timeframe and/or get things done by a specific date. Having the message go away then reappear when the timing is relevant is a hack that’s been working massively well for me so far.

After it was all said and done, my inbox looked like this!

Day one went flawlessly. By removing e-mail clutter I felt immeasurably energized and ready to do the deep work instead of staring at the screen in an overwhelmed stupor. I didn’t miss anything about the old email workspace. I found myself attacking the “to dos” — the major bullseyes of the day —that mattered the most.

Email became secondary to workflow, with actual work now coming first. By using chunks of time specifically set aside for e-mail I now manage inbound communications tactically (while attempting to avoid becoming obsessed with persistent zero!). When the following Monday afternoon rolled around I was noticeably more productive — my headspace was clearer and I found that my mood was better, too. A few days later I had been able to keep my inbox down to ten emails or less. The Friday afternoon habit of editing my inbox has stuck around, and has been well worth the investment.

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