Inbox Zero Doesn’t Work — Here’s What I Do

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Years ago I endeavored to hit inbox zero, the zen state where your inbox either stays at zero1 all day long, or at least ends at zero. A decade ago, this was not unreasonable: if you filtered out spam and newsletters you could respond to most emails quickly, even if some of the responses were along the lines of “I need more time to answer this thoroughly.”

And it felt like I accomplished something — all my things were done for the day, nothing outstanding!

Today, most of us are a long way from being able to empty out our inbox at any point in the day. It’s not possible. Too many emails come in as I’m processing email. It also no longer feels like an empowering accomplishment, all I did was file 100 emails and send replies to people that didn’t need to email me in the first place.

I tried a couple of different methods, but still found it impossible to stay on top of it. Around the same time, I started on Getting Things Done (GTD), a framework for collecting and prioritizing your todo list, without going overboard. I didn’t do great there, either.

I found that half-implementing inbox zero and half-implementing GTD meant that I missed important things and then I distrusted my systems — so I went back into my inbox and GTD even more to make sure I didn’t miss something, which I now I was guaranteed to do because there was no one place I was storing things to do. There were in my email, my todo list, my head, sometimes stickies.

Here is the current solution:

  1. I go through all emails — both personal and work — at the end of each day, and clear out all of yesterday’s emails. If today is Thursday, by EOD there will not be any emails remaining from Wednesday. This doesn’t mean I won’t take care of any emails from today, but yesterday’s email must get done.

    This is also possible, because on Thursday I can’t get any more emails from Wednesday. That also means I can finish it! There is a finish line I can see!

    Note: this doesn’t mean I don’t process any of today’s emails, just that I don’t have to.

  2. Emails that need a longer response or an action I can’t take now get put into my GTD Inbox (todo list), but no email is left unturned.

  3. Every morning I go through my GTD inbox (despite the name, this isn’t like email) — this was not an easy habit to start. The real key for me was to give myself permission to not work on that thing today. If it’s important but not urgent, it doesn’t make today’s must do list, which frees up my mental capacity to process the GTD inbox.

When I do all three of these daily I, (1) don’t miss important communications, (2) feel freedom to really end the work day, because I know I didn’t miss any important communications, (3) trust my systems.

So, “inbox zero,” now means “no emails left from yesterday,” which in turns means it is no longer impossible.

  1. Not zero unread, zero messages, full stop. Everything is deleted, archived or filed. ↩︎


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