4 min read

How to Get and Keep Inbox Zero

This weekend I spent a couple hours deleting and refiling about 5000 emails that had piled up in my Inbox over the past couple years. At some point I got too relaxed about letting newsletters and spam sit around unchallenged, and once the unread notifications got to a certain threshold, it just felt like too much to do anything about it.

Until this weekend, that is. I'm taking a more deliberate stance on what I've been calling my "digital hygiene," and keeping my inbox squeaky clean is a necessary part of that effort.

There is a mental strain that follows me around when I have unread messages in my inbox. That little notification bubble on my email app tells me that there is "stuff" I need to deal with. But since it's "just" spam, I don't ever actually deal with it, and so it necessarily goes unresolved for months and potentially years on end.

I want that small amount of stress to go away. Because small amounts of stress can quickly add up to non-trivial baseline anxiety that makes it hard to relax and be happy while living inside my life.

The Goal

Cleaning up an inbox that's reached multiple thousands of misplaced messages can be daunting. But in reality it will probably only take a couple hours to properly deal with it.

The goal is to get your inbox down to zero messages. Not zero unread messages, zero messages of any kind. Because your inbox is a list of things you have to deal with. It's not the only list of things you have to deal with, since an inbox makes for a poor task manager. But it is a list of things you have to deal with.

So, at the end of this process you want to be left with a completely empty inbox.

The Process

The right place to put messages that you have processed is the Archive, and the right place to put spam is in the Trash.

Large Categories

When you start out, there will probably be several large categories of email that come from the same sender and can be processed in the same way. Either by archiving them all or trashing them all.

For example, I had approximately ten million emails from Amazon notifying me of an order confirmation or that something had just shipped. For large categories like this, search for a keyword that will identify them amongst the rest of your mail. I just searched "Amazon" and was left with more than a dozen pages of unread messages. Depending on how sophisticated your email client is, you might be able to select all messages from the search or just one page at a time. In the most efficient manner possible, select all the resulting messages and a) mark them as read, and b) send them to either the archive or the trash.

It's up in the air whether these Amazon messages belong in trash or archive, but since they have to with financial transactions and receipts, I opted for archiving them.

Repeat this process for all the large categories you can find. Other large categories I found in my inbox were bank statements, emails from my building about deliveries, and marketing emails from some overly aggressive apps and websites I had signed up for.

Whenever you come across anything that might be from a mailing list (like a marketing email) make sure to click into it and unsubscribe. Otherwise you'll just keep getting these and will have to deal with more spam interruption than is necessary.

The Rest

Once the large categories are dealt with, there will be a long tail of at least several hundred messages that can't be neatly grouped together in an efficient way. The way to deal with this is basically brute force, but there is a system you can use which will speed things up a bit.

Most of your unread messages will be trash. There is a reason they've been sitting around for months and you haven't even opened them. Filter your inbox for unread. Then, page by page, go through and follow these simple steps:

  1. Select all the messages on the page
  2. Skim through the page and see if there is anything that is worth saving
  3. For any messages that you'd like to save, unselect just that message
  4. Mark as read and trash everything that remains selected
  5. Process and archive all the remaining messages

There is an analogous process for handling read messages that linger in your inbox. Most of them you will want to save in the archive, since there is probably a reason you opened them when they came in. (This might not be true for everyone, but it was for me.)

Follow a process opposite to the above:

  1. Filter for read messages (although everything that is left at this point should be read, since you've processed everything that was unread)
  2. For each page, select all
  3. Skim through the page and see if there is anything that is not worth saving, and unselect those messages
  4. Archive all remaining selected messages
  5. Trash the rest

Conclusion and Moving Forward

At this point you will have a completely empty inbox. Congratulations! This is an amazing accomplishment and should come with a feeling of relief. You can be proud of yourself for getting rid of all that clutter.

But your inbox is a dynamic thing. New messages will come in and you will have to put in some time and energy to keep it clean. Here's how to do it.

Anytime you get a message, it will fall into one of the following categories:

A) Notification of something that you do not need to take action on.
B) Notification of something that you do need to take action on.
C) Spam.

For messages in category A, either trash or archive according to the content.

For messages in category B, take the necessary action if you have time and it's something quick. Otherwise, add the action item to your todo list so that you'll remember to do it when you have time. You can archive the message at this point since you've recorded the necessary information.

For message in category C, if it's from a mailing list, immediately unsubscribe. Trash the message.

Hopefully this process will not only help you achieve a clean inbox, but will help you keep it that way. Here's to your increased digital hygiene, and decreased baseline anxiety!