How the Zero Inbox Concept
Changed My Life

JANUARY 29, 2015

Email has become the most ubiquitous and regularly used single application in business today. Even with the addition of texting, social media, and everything else, when people need to get stuff done they use email.

And it sucks...

Not email itself, but the behavioral consequences of email have created a lot of unintended consequences that are changing the way we think in some pretty insidious ways.

For example, when I first started in business if I needed to talk to a co-worker to make a decision I would call them or go find them in person. If I could not find them the decision had to wait. In a way you could say it sat in my work queue. And work was truly two-way.

With the advent of email I was suddenly able to delegate that work to my co-worker via an email communication. Suddenly my queue was empty and the work was in his or her queue. Awesome for me.

Until everyone else started doing it.

Suddenly my email Inbox was full of work. And I was not the person deciding it should be there. In fact, anyone with my email address was suddenly able to delegate work to me. At any time. From anywhere.

Even if it was not my responsibility, I still had to act in good faith and respond, if for no other reason than to tell them I could not help them.

At this point I came to the realization that a live conversation allowed you to quickly communicate a lot of detail and subtext. Something that email COULD NOT DO without a lot of extra work. Confusion in these verbal exchanges was addressed immediately. Context was established naturally. It was a single event with multiple exchanges.

Now, I have multiple events, with multiple exchanges, often sending multiple emails just to deal with a single issue.

I had learned to live with anywhere from 25 - 150 emails in my Inbox at any time. And I was doing better than most of the folks I know. Consider the screen shot from a friends iPhone below:

Because this was everyone's experience I didn't really consider it a problem. It was simply the new normal. The zeitgeist of the technical age.

But it does not have to be.

I recently started reading more and more about the idea of maintaining a zero inbox. Learning a discipline that would allow you to manage your email queue to zero emails on a regular basis.

At first I ignored this because I assumed that this was not something that was possible for me. Perhaps these people were not as busy as me, did not get as many emails, or were less responsive. But, over time, I began to consider trying it.

I took the basic concept and added my own set of rules that I have outlined below.

You only need a few folders in your email:

Inbox - Where everything comes in. Things that land here are here to be acted upon. NOT kept as a work queue. I can clear a large number of items from the Inbox in just a few minutes.

Sent - I regularly, a couple times a day, clear my sent items. If I need to keep something it gets dropped in the Archive.

Archive - This is NOT the Trash. This is a simple and searchable place for CYA. Email is instantly and quickly searchable regardless of the client or system used. Folders are useless. Kill them.

Hold for Reference - This is for the active work queue. Stuff here needs to be saved for a response.

Trash - I clear the Trash regularly. Multiple times a day. I just use a Keyboard shortcut.

The system is simple.

Email is curated quickly

IF IT CONSTITUTES A TASK I create one in my task management system. I use Todoist. Then, I delete it OR put it in the Hold for Reference folder if I will need to use it for a response.

If it is just informational it goes in the Archive.

If I cannot be harmed by losing it, I delete it. This is the hardest action to take. Learn to get good at it. In 6 months I have not had a single instance where I needed an email for reference and could not find it. I delete at least 80% of all emails received.

If I complete a task that uses an email in my Hold for Reference folder I delete the email upon completion.

That's all there is to it.

Now the amazing part. My workload has decreased. Not a little bit, but by a significant amount. I touch the majority of my emails ONLY ONCE. I have little mental stress when I open email because it is almost always empty or has just a few emails waiting to be worked.

I challenge you to try it. I have shared with multiple executives that are coaching clients, and they all say the same thing. They feel free. They feel liberated. They find that the mental load of work goes down. The begin to work on the things that create value and NOT the busy work that others delegate to them. They spend less time on mail and miss fewer things.

Give it a try and let me know what YOU think!


I was recently exposed to a new approach to managing this that I am convinced has powerful merit for those in whom a true Zero Inbox model may not work. For many, finding a way to manage your Inbox as a project management system in itself can be profound in it's impact. The only condition is you must be using the Google Gmail interface and Chrome as your browser.

Drag is a tool that may be that perfect middle-ground solution. Combining the best of Kanban thinking and the Trello project model of cards and categories, it restructures your Google Inbox into a true task management system. I am using now and finding tremendous value in it. I think you should consider it as well!

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