Secrets of an Empty Inbox

I did it on Friday night, and again on Saturday morning. I even did it again on Sunday!
What did I do? I got my inbox down to zero.

Yes, that’s right, zero e-mails in my inbox. And you can do it too! Here are my secrets.

I tend to keep my inbox fairly empty. I process my mail frequently, and I move e-mails out of my inbox after they have been answered or acted on. Most of the time, I move them out of my inbox by deleting them. Sometimes I move them to a different folder — but only if I think I’ll need to refer to them in the future.

If I leave anything in my inbox, that means it still requires action. That could mean:

  • I can’t respond to it right away because it will take some thinking and/or I don’t have the answer yet.
  • I want to read it but it will take too long to do right now (e.g., a newsletter).
  • It’s about something I want to research.

If the e-mail involves a significant and timely to-do item, I will add it my to-do list, then move the e-mail to a subject folder for reference when I’m ready to do it. There is no point in keeping it in my inbox if it’s already on my to-do list. (FYI, I use Microsoft Outlook, which makes it easy to create folders and subfolders.)

Another trick that I do if an e-mail requires me to do some significant work — and has a firm deadline sometime in the future — is to put a reminder on it (another cool Outlook feature) and then put it away in a folder. It’s no longer creating visual noise for me, but will come back to my attention at the appropriate time.

If my inbox gets full enough to require scrolling past the first screen, I start to get nervous. I know that if I can’t see it, it’s not going to get acted on. Usually that means I’ve got more than 30 items.

Recently I had the good fortune to be overwhelmed with work. June was the busiest month I’ve had since I started my business four years ago, and May was not far behind. (As my husband would say, quoting one of his favorite movies, “Not all eyes will weep for you.”) That meant that I barely had the time to respond to the most important e-mails, let alone the optional ones.

So how did I get my inbox down to zero? I had a few cancellations over the last few days, so I made the time to attack my inbox with gusto. I did all the reading and research that I had been putting off. It was SUCH a great feeling to see my inbox shrinking.

Over the last couple of days, it has been easy to keep it at zero because each time I sit at my computer, I deal with the few e-mails that have trickled in, then delete or move them.

What is your biggest challenge in keeping your inbox empty?


  1. Sande on July 8, 2010 at 12:56 am

    Keeping your inbox at zero is a great idea. Virtual clutter is a problem many people over look but it can really slow your work down. Keeping a separate email for work is also a great way to keep organized.

  2. Lori Bores on September 4, 2013 at 12:17 am

    I love this, Sharon! Gmail makes it a bit easier by categorizing your emails by Social, Promo, & Personal, but I still have 1000+…best tip is unsubscribing…brilliant! Thank you.

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