“Inbox (0)” – the goal of many, the reality for few

Start of the new year. Lots of people coming back to work…or some lucky sods who aren’t back until February!

This time of year is when I often see a number of posts on social media about huge inboxes filled with messages, because people have been away, haven’t checked their work email (good on them!), and they’re now flooded with emails received while they’ve been enjoying some well-earned time off.

This always makes me giggle slightly – because I never seem to have this problem. I’m going to share with you a secret.

My inbox is always at zero. Both my professional work account and my personal account –ALWAYS.

The idea of “Inbox (0)” is kind of a wish for a number of people I know. I’ve seen it appear in New Years Resolutions time and time again. I see it brought up by people during the year that they’d tried and failed and they don’t know where they went wrong.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know where I went right. I’ve always been able to keep my inbox, if not at zero, then at less than 10 since I first started using emails many, many, many moons ago. Due to this, I figured that creating a “Guide to Email Maintenance” might be of use to others. So here we are!

Please bear in mind that this will predominantly be aimed at people in other technical fields, as their email flow will likely be similar to mine, but I’m sure many of these tips and tricks will work for other professions.

Idea behind “Inbox (0)”

To some, the whole idea of having an inbox of zero means there’s literally nothing left to do. You’ve done everything you need to do, you’ve got nothing left on your plate, you’re done for the day/week/month.


Say it with me, people – Email is not a workflow tool.

This is probably the hardest mindset to break. That your inbox *is* your “To Do” list. I promise, once you’ve broken it, you’ll be much happier!

General Email Management

In general, emails come in and emails go out. If you’re organised (you’d *better* be organised), you probably have a few folders in which you file stuff away when you’re done with it. The following are a few basic rules to use when dealing with email:

  • Do not use the “Deleted Items”/”Trash”/”Bin” for storing items – I realise this is an obvious one, but hilariously, you’d be surprised how many people still do it. Don’t. Just don’t. The best analogy I’ve been able to come up with is this: when you finish for the day, you don’t sweep all the paperwork off your desk and into your rubbish bin of an evening and expect to come back the next day and still find it there, do you? (if you do, you should perhaps look at cleaning out your rubbish bin a bit more frequently…)
  • Have a folder structure – don’t store *everything* in your inbox. That’ll make a) very messy and disorganised and b) you’ll never reach the mythical “Inbox (0)”. My folder structure is pretty basic. A handful of top level folders – form, at work, they are: “Technical”, “Admin”, “Logs/Monitoring”, “Private” and “Archive”. Every email I get can be filed under one of those headings – though I do have a number of sub folders under them!
  • Don’t sign-up to every mailing list under the sun – Sure, I realise you want to get those discount codes, but remember: almost all commercial mailouts have an “unsubscribe” function. Unsubscribe from the shit you really don’t care about.
  • Check your “Junk Email”/”Spam” regularly – stuff goes into here that isn’t spam. It may not be all the time, but it does happen. You don’t want important emails being filtered away before you’ve even looked. Check this folder, you can usually pick out the legitimate emails rather easily
  • Delete or remove emails with large attachments – email is not a file storage tool, especially enterprise email systems which usually have quotas in place. If you receive an email with a particularly large file, save the file locally and delete the email. This is good because a) you’ve removed an email and it’ll no longer be in your inbox (yay!) and b) it means it’s not taking up ridiculous amounts of disk space on your email server, your mail admins will thank you.
  • Search is your friend – many of you will have GMail accounts, and the search functionality in here is just as good as Google’s search functionality. If you’re worried you won’t be able to find it again, don’t stress! That’s what search is for. Provided you remember *some* details about the email – who it was sent from, an uncommon word in the subject line, the date it was sent – you’ll be able to search for it. The same is true in Outlook!

Right, moving right along and into the nitty-gritty of keeping your inbox lovely and empty!

Use rules/filters

The number of people I know who don’t do this…my gods, how do you people SURVIVE in the digital age?!

Rules/Filters are your friends. I promise. You’ll love me for this one if you’re not doing it already. I have a few rules regarding setting this up (Rules for Rules, ha!) so let’s go through those first:

  • Do I receive email from the same email address frequently?
  • Do I receive email that has the same subject line (or similar subject line) often?
  • Do I receive email from mailing lists?

If you answered “Yes” to any of the questions above, you should have a rule or filter in place that automatically moves those emails into a folder.

Setting up rules/filters isn’t complicated. Here are a few links off to some good instructions for the two most standard email clients that I see: Outlook and GMail

Don’t be surprised if you end up with quite a few rules/filters. In my work client, I have 23 rules set up (in Outlook). In my personal email (in GMail), I have a whooping 81 filters. This is because I subscribe to a lot more mailing lists with my personal email account.

So, go through you inbox now, take a look at things that you could look at filtering, create some folders and get to making some rules/filters so they don’t show up in your inbox any more!

Using Categories & Flags

Categories can also be incredibly useful – I use them a bit, but I know a number of people who prefer to have this very visual way of separating their email and use it for *everything*. Colour can be a really useful tool in being able to determine what’s important and what’s not, what emails are from whom (and how many of them there are) etc.

This article has some good tips on how to set up Categories in a really no-nonsense fashion (I actually love HowToGeek because it truly is idiot-proof most of the time!)

Only thing I’d say is that a number of articles describing categories mention that it means you no longer need folders – sure, you can store everything in your inbox if that’s how you really want to roll, but the whole point of this post is to get you to “Inbox = 0”. We can’t do that if you’re storing everything in your inbox!

I also use flags for things I know I need to follow-up on. That’s not to say the email stays in my Inbox! The flag is usually set on emails that contain useful information I’m going to need later down the track (e.g. instructions on rebuilds, license keys, attachments that I’ll need as part of a project task)


Sometimes things are sent to you directly. Sometimes you’re just CC’d into things because someone wants to make sure that you’re peripherally aware of what’s going on. Sometimes you’re BCC’d into stuff and it’s either important, or you really don’t care.

This is where you can do some magic (with your rules/filters or with Outlook’s funky “Search Folders”) to show you emails that are either sent directly to you, you’re CC’d in or you’re BCC’d in.

I personally have these set up as Search Folders so that I can change the view of what I’m looking at.

Separating personal and professional

This really is something everyone should already do, but if you run your own business, it might be a bit difficult. I’ve found this pretty easy because I’ve always worked *for* someone, so I’ve tried to keep the two separate. That’s not to say it was always the case.

My first full-time job involved a bit of cross-over and when I left, it took a bit of untangling – I was lucky in that they did forward my email for a little while, but I know many workplaces wouldn’t be quite so nice.

The way I made the separation was rather easy – is the email/person/mailing list something I’m going to want to keep whether I work here or not?

If the answer was yes, then the simple solution was to have that shift over to my personal email account. By either changing my email address for a mailing list, updating my contact information with a business or letting people know that “No, this is my personal email address, please send all future emails here”.

It will take a bit of time, but once you get the two separated, it makes life much easier – and more productive! Limit your use of personal email during business hours and limit your use of work email outside of those hours. You’re confident you’re not missing anything important, as they should be going to the correct address!

Email is not a to-do list

This is the biggest of them all – so I left it until last.

The number of people I know (and I know a fair few of them are probably going to read this!) who use their inbox as their to-do list.


Email is not a to-do list. If you use it that way, you will never *ever* make it to “Inbox=0”. There is always something else that needs to be done – it might not necessarily be today, but there’s always things that need to be looked at, discussed, organised in the future. If you use your inbox this way, you’ll never have a clean inbox. The most you can ever hope for is maybe 10 or less.

The way around this – start using a To-Do list application. I can hear what you’re all saying “But I dun WANNA use another application” in a whiny voice. I realise it can be a pain in the butt, but I promise it’s worth it.

I personally use an application called ToDoist. I’ve actually written about it previously. I won’t go through my entire post (you can take a look at the post I linked if you’re interested) but the reason I like this one is because it bolts into both Outlook and GMail, has an Android and iPhone app, can run as an app on your PC or Mac, even ties into your web browser! This means your to-do list is with you *everywhere*. It’s not just tied to your email. This is a really good thing – because, to be honest, not all of us want to live in our email 24×7.

Instead of keeping something in your inbox as a to-do item, put it into your todo list application (you can choose to use a different one of your choice) and you can then move the email to the folder of your choice. The folder may even be “To Do Items”, that you then clean out once you’ve finished doing the task. But it means it’s no longer in your face. You’ve put it somewhere, you’ve prioritised it, you’ve set yourself a reminder. This is the biggest benefit to using a to-do list application over your email – you have much greater control.

So there you have it – my tips for managing your email and getting you down to “Inbox = 0”! Fingers crossed that if you’ve made it one of your resolutions for this year, I’ve been able to give you some tips that will help you get there!

1 thought on ““Inbox (0)” – the goal of many, the reality for few

  1. Byorgen Druffeldroff (@bastardsheep)

    Hear hear. Your inbox is not a to-do list, it’s just a to-read list.

    To get on top of your inbound tasks you need to prioritise the inbound tasks, and you can’t prioritise something you haven’t read.

    Not reading things just leaves you disorganised and in a worse position to get on top of said inbound tasks. It’ll just take longer and be done in a less efficient manner, leaving you worse for wear.

    Don’t get me started on people who do occasional mass purges/deletions to “get on top”.


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