How to Get Your Inbox Down to Zero and Keep it There

Here at KISSmetrics, we talk about all forms of online marketing for businesses, including email marketing. While beginner’s guides and email timing are important, there is also one other area that may not have a lot to do with marketing, but has everything to do with how effectively you can run your business (and personal life for that matter).

When you work online, you will find that the things that you need the most to maintain important business connections are also the things that will derail you from the path of productivity. Social media is well known to be filled with distractions. It is not the only place you’ll likely get into trouble though. There’s another online tool that can be just as distracting and disruptive to your productivity as it is a necessity. That tool is your inbox.

How Your Inbox Stops You from Getting Things Done

Your inbox can hinder your ability to get things done in two ways. The first are notifications. Even if you don’t have your email open on your desktop, you likely have alerts for new email set up on your smartphone. So if that alert goes off, your mind will always wander into thinking about what new email you just received. Sometimes that quick distraction is all it takes to get your focus off the task at hand.

Another way your inbox can stop you from getting things done is by being overloaded. I don’t know about you, but I work a lot more efficiently if I feel like I have a manageable to-do list. A flooded inbox with tons of emails waiting for responses does not feel manageable, and the more overloaded it gets, the less I want to deal with anything in it.

Why an Empty Inbox is a Happy Inbox

So why would you want to get your inbox down to zero? I like to look at an empty inbox at the end of the day as a day where everything that needed to get done was finished. Think of each email in your inbox as a task that needs to be completed. Email tasks generally boil down to the following four things:

  1. Someone needs you to complete something for them.
  2. Someone needs you to make a decision.
  3. Something needs to be filtered.
  4. Something needs to be deleted.

When you want to empty your inbox, you need to focus on doing one of the above four things. Now let’s look at how to do an initial cleanup of an overloaded inbox!

Cleaning Up Your Inbox

When I first decided that I wanted to get my inbox down to zero emails, I had to tackle about 300+ emails, some which dated several months back. But at that point, enough was enough. So I dedicated the weekend to start going through my emails, one by one, to see whether I could immediately do one of the four above things for each email.

At the end of the weekend, I had gotten things down to five emails in my inbox, all of which required me to finish a major project I was still working on. Everything else was moved out of the inbox by doing the following:

  • If the email was from someone who needed something done for them (most of the time it was something simple like send a piece of example code, fill out an interview questionnaire, or review a product), I either did it immediately or politely declined. The judgment call on that was if it took more than 5 minutes to complete, it was declined. If it took less, I just made myself do it.
  • If the email was from someone who needed me to decide on something (whether I would attend an event, sponsor a contest, or review a guest post) I just made a fast decision and replied with my response of yes, I’ll be attending, yes I will sponsor, or no, that post doesn’t meet my guidelines.
  • If the email was from a newsletter or mailing list I had subscribed to, I created a new filter for it to go into a folder automatically when the next installment arrived or, if I didn’t plan to read it again, I unsubscribed.
  • If the email was something that I wasn’t interested in responding to, or regular enough to require a filter, I deleted it.

Sometimes, the toughest part of emptying out your inbox is finally saying no to something. I know many of my emails were hanging out in my inbox simply because they required me to say no to someone’s product review, guest post, event invitation, or some other request. Once you’ve started to say no to some things, it will make it easier to do in the future and leave your inbox open to receive more good requests that you will want to say yes to.

Keeping Your Inbox Clean

There are three great habits you need to adapt to if you want to keep your newly emptied inbox at zero.

Before I get into these, it’s important to think about how you use email. Some people use emails as a reminder that they need to be on a particular network or website to do something. By turning off notifications, you might miss out on those reminders to do something whereas you will remember them by filtering.

If you know you’ll be in HootSuite all day every day, then there’s no need to get an email notification every time you get a direct message. But if you know you only check your LinkedIn group when they send you the digest, then you might want to keep that email notification on but filter them from your inbox.

Now let’s move onto those good, inbox-cleaning habits.

1. Turn off unnecessary notifications.

Whenever you sign up for a new social network, forum, or other website, chances are you are going to be opt-in automatically to notification emails from that website. Be sure that when you sign up to a new website, you find your email notification settings and turn off the ones you do not need. Otherwise, you’ll have new emails for friend requests, new messages, offers, products, and a whole slew of other things you may not need bombarding your inbox.

Some popular networks’ email notification settings pages include the following. You’ll need to be logged in for these to work.

Another area where you might get a lot of emails is from blog commenting. For blogs using third-party commenting systems, you can change your notification settings globally by going to the following.

For commenting on other blogs using the base comment system, look for checkboxes before the submit button asking if you want to subscribe to comments. Sometimes these are automatically checked, especially if you have subscribed to comments from a previous post.

2. Filter anything you will not need to respond to immediately.

This is huge when it comes to keeping your inbox at a neat, manageable level. If it is an email you will not need to take an immediate action on, be sure to filter it. This includes:

  • Any notifications from social networks, forums, or other websites you have signed up for which you want to receive.
  • Comment reply notifications from blogs.
  • Newsletters or mailing lists.
  • Casual acquaintances (who 90% of the time only send you FW: emails).

Really, you can filter almost everyone and just keep an eye on the folders you filter them to, that way your inbox is only prioritizing new people that you might have to respond to the fastest. Some general filters that work well include the following.

  • Create blog commenting filters with New Comment on, Your comment on the post, and There is a new comment to in the subject line. Send them all to a folder named Comment Replies.
  • Create social media filters with @facebookmail.com, @twitter.com, @linkedin.com, and @youtube.com in the senders or from field. Send them all to a folder for that particular network.
  • Getting a lot of emails from PR people without an option to unsubscribe? Create a PR People folder and start filtering each one as they come through to that folder.
  • Filter clients into their own folder using their email address in the senders or from field.

One perk to Gmail over other email programs is that you can create a filter that will label specific emails but not automatically send them to the folders. That way, they will show up in your inbox so you can take action on them, then you can just easily click archive to move them to their folder for future reference. That way if the same person is always emailing you, you don’t have to keep scrolling through your labels / folders each time to organize their emails.

3. Unsubscribe to anything you’re not reading, don’t intent to read, or didn’t opt-in to immediately.

It sometimes feels faster to just delete something every time it hits your inbox. And, per email, it is. But if you are regularly deleting something without reading it, do you really want to continue letting it hit your inbox? Worse, do you want to stay subscribed to something you didn’t intentionally want to opt-in to in the first place?

Each time I get an email from someone I don’t recognize, I look for an unsubscribe or opt-out link on the email. You’ll usually find those links at the top or bottom of the email, especially ones that are in newsletter format or are from PR companies. It usually doesn’t take too long to unsubscribe, and it’s worth it not to have the next email from that list alerting your via your inbox notifications.

And for those particular nasty emailers who don’t have an unsubscribe link on their newsletters, I tend to mark them as spam and then create a filter to skip the inbox and delete them. This also goes for sites that make you try to login to an account that you don’t even remember creating to get to the unsubscribe option. It seems harsh, yet it’s the fastest way to go about things because you don’t want to spend all day trying to hunt someone down to remove you from their list.

About the Author: Kristi Hines is a freelance writer, blogger, and social media enthusiast. Her blog Kikolani focuses on blog marketing, including social networking strategies and blogging tips.

  1. Hello Kristi,

    Fantastic post about email inbox cleanliness!

    I do the same things that you mentioned among others, and go to bed peacefully each night (or damn close to it!) with an inbox at 0.

    It really is a great way to stay on top of things, get things done, and ensure that your “to do” list is segmented properly.

    But the flip side is that it can also be a detriment to getting things done, being productive and stall your progress on important projects.

    Email management is one of the biggest time sinks in the tech world.

    Thanks again for the post.

  2. I just wanted to drop in and tell you how much I love reading your blog. Keep up the great work

  3. I agree. Being subscribed to social media updates is such a time waster. First there was television and now social media.

  4. I was going to respond but it would take too much time…umm…wait…

    What a great article on all counts. I am always amazed by so-called “professional PR people” who still at the dawn of 2012–because like many of us I am a thought leader or influencer–send unsolicited ‘news’ on topics have never once written about in my career. Better still. they often arrive w-no opt-out mechanism, and I wanted to share with all of you that in so doing they are in clear violation of the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 http://1.usa.gov/sXNQPR. Sometimes, if I have nothing better to tweet that day, I commemorate them here http://twitter.com/marketpowerLLC

  5. Thanks and I agree one should keep your inbox clean so it does not take up your valuable time.

  6. Emails in my inbox is like my daily to-do list. I will read every email and complete tasks according to them.

  7. My method is simple, I treat every new email like it is trying to wage war on my innocent empty inbox and kill (delete) it as soon as possible. Ha.

  8. Thanks for the great tips Kristi and congratulations on getting your inbox under control. My inbox is definitely a major pain for me. A couple of weeks ago, I was dealing with an issue where a caching plugin totally destroyed my Thesis theme. My site was totally illegible and complete restores were useless. While investigating a solution, I temporarily deactivated my anti-spam software. Ever since, I’ve been dealing with an inordinate amount of spam that is absolutely consuming my inbox. I am constantly setting up rules to automatically bypass my inbox and permanently delete these emails but the senders are somehow circumventing my rules. If you (or anyone else) has any suggestions, I’m at my wits end here. My email client is Outlook and the email address that was compromised is the one that’s attached to my Gravatar and all of my social media sites.

  9. Thank you, I really need these tips since my inbox is out of control :)

  10. Hi Kristi

    Excellent post, I spent months in the early days of my internet career battling with this very thing, everyday I would log into my email accounts and spend the next hour wadding through the endless emails.

    It was a huge distraction as you have said and it really does slow you down when you really need to be producing more content for your site. You end up reading some useless marketing emails that have no benefit to you or your business, I might even say that it can become an addiction if you are not careful.

    To stem the flow of all these time wasting emails I had to unsubscribe from many different email accounts but the damage was already done, so the next step was to block all the spam as well which I did using spam assassin from server level.

    My inbox is now much cleaner, however I can now get it even more refined by using some of these tips you listed above thanks again Kristi.

  11. Utter rubbish. You wasted a weekend dealing with only 300 emails.
    With flagging tools and search tools included in email clients you need never do this again. My inbox is 42000 emails, and I’m happy, in control, and can find whatever I need. Do not filter into folders, it only makes it harder to find stuff.

  12. I enjoy reading your posts but I tend to disagree on this one.

    Here’s how I see it: When getting onto Twitter 1,5 years ago I soon realized that here was a new “inbox” were it was beyond any reasonable ambition to keep track of everything.

    It was kind of a relief. There was just so much stuff, so dropping out for a few days was really not a problem.

    Shortly thereafter I started to look at my email inbox the same way. My idea is that important things will “surface” somehow and what remains unread is just not worth my attention.

    And I agree with “Jules” that sorting only takes time but searching is accurate and takes no time.

    I spend my weekends with my kids. My Inbox has 5804 items and for the first time in my life I don’t worry about email.

  13. love these tips,kristi

    Just started filtering emails after reading this post,Thank you for this great post :)

  14. Great post on how to achieve an empty inbox. I’d add a couple of thngs. Paying attention to your email etqiuette helps too as it cuts down needless rounds of email ping-ping. Also thinking ahead when you send an email. Check you have given the other person enough information to reply properly/asked all the right questions.

    We have a free email etiquette checklist on our wesbite. Feel free to download it from http://www.mesmo.co.uk/knowledge.aspx

  15. Hi -
    I have a long list of folders in the sidebar but I still can’t keep my inbox clean (presently at 1059). I will follow your tips here this week and post the result.

    Thanks!
    Jeff
    @NdnaJnz

  16. Great article,
    The chap above who has happy with 1,000s of emails in his inbox….#shudder! That would keep me awake at night & really stress me out!

    Am taking away from this getting on top of filtering & notifications. It an issue I had before is that, in a fit of quasi-organisation, I created waaaaay too many Gmail labels – this is counter productive – will probably delete them all and start again (not sure if that is possible). Interested in what labels make sense to you (especialliy in light of th fact you can do nested labels now).

    Joel_Hughes

  17. Great tips. Turning off notification is kinda hart but it pays of.

  18. I will follow your tips for try to clean my inbos (I tried like anything for do that with no results)… I hope this will be the last time I do it!

  19. Some useful tips here. Email spamming is a real time killer…

  20. I agree with alot of the previous comments. As an employer it is also important from a productivity standpoint to make sure that your employees do the same with their corporate emails.

Comments are closed.

← Previous ArticleNext Article →