Thursday, April 30, 2009

Inbox Zero, Take Two

A year and a half ago I tried to get to “Inbox Zero” and failed.  This is the idea that you get your inbox down to zero mails every day.  I’m making another run at it and this time have been a little more successful.  I’m not perfect, but I haven’t fallen off the horse yet either.  Here’s what I have found to work.

  • Let all interesting mail fall directly into the inbox.  Don’t use separate folders for stuff from your boss or an alias/list that is important.
  • Move non-interesting mail into a separate folder by a rule.  I have rules to shunt off aliases I find merely interesting but not important into their own folders automatically.
  • Read or skim every mail that is in your inbox.  For each, make one of the following decisions:
    • Respond.  Read it and take the appropriate action.  If you can do this in a minute or two, just do it.
    • Delete it.  You have the information or it wasn’t interesting.  Either way, you don’t need to keep it around.
    • Archive it.  You may need to refer back to it later, but you don’t need to take any action on it.
    • Mark it for further reading.  It’s not critical to act on it, but too long to read now.  Put it in a folder to read later.
    • Mark it for further action.  It will take longer than you have to respond, but a response is necessary.  Put it in a folder for later response.

Following these rules makes my inbox look something like this:

  • Inbox
    • Action Required
    • Archive
    • Read Later
  • Interests
    • Various subfolders for the non-critical aliases I am part of.

I also have a rule to move all mail sent to: or cc: me directly to my inbox.  This way mail intended for my eyes won’t get filtered into an “interests” folder.

I have found this system simple enough to keep up with it.  It also means I no longer miss mails which got filtered into some folder I haven’t yet read for today.  I now see every interesting mail and am at least aware of it.  It also helps me keep track of the mails I really need to go back and respond to.  My old system was just to leave them unread, but this got unwieldy very quickly and I never made it back to most of them.


  1. Hi Steve,
    I noticed on stackoverflow you saying you didn't like the Intro to Clojure vids on youtube. I created those, so I'm wondering what specifically you didn't like. Was the material unclear or not comprehensive enough or what? Thanks.

  2. Steve,
    In these days of information overload, managing one's email inbox is important to one's productivity. I am glad that you have shared an approach to manage the inbox. Some of the points given by you make sense. However, how do you plan to address the following decisions?
    1. There is email in your inbox and you have responded to it. If you let your email lying in your inbox, your inbox would keep getting bigger and bigger. This means that when you search your inbox, your searches would become slower over time since each subsequent search would need to act on a larger set of emails.
    2. You have moved an email from the inbox to the Read Later folder. You read the email. Do you then move this email to your inbox or let it lying in the Read Later folder? Same thing with the unread emails in the Action Required folder.
    Inder P Singh
    LinkedIn Profile:

  3. Now I just need a handy way to go through my 648 emails in my inbox.  ;)  I too try to read or skim every email that comes in, and try to decide what to do with it.  I think I just need a "look at this later" email box.  
    Good luck with keeping up with your email.