What I’ve Learned about ‘Inbox Zero’

DISCLAIMER: This post is about email best practices. It is NOT about all the different software out there that can help you manage your inbox. I have mentioned a few clients and a few ‘add-ons’ to exemplify practices, but I am not attempting to provide an overview of what is available.

It’s been over two decades since I sent my first email, and in that time I’ve heard lots of talk about ‘inbox zero’. Seems I am always closer to ‘inbox three thousand’. I recently began to wonder if my self taught methods of handling email were not the most efficient.  I am an email hoarder, I never ever delete an email. I use my email as a way of keeping records, searching back to see if I’ve actually exchanged emails with people in the past, or as a way to do research. Occasionally I move older messages out of the inbox and into an ‘archive’ folder, usually when my email server tells me my IMAP inbox is nearly full and I am no longer receiving mail. Too often my email client seems like it is weezing under it’s own weight.


Is this a problem?

Part of the technical challenge is that I use lots of different devices for checking email, and I love the idea of having all that information at my fingertips and in sync. I’m fearful that if I move stuff out of my laptop’s inbox, I won’t be able to run accurate searches on my mobile. You could call me an addict, as I find myself checking email constantly through the day. I am disciplined about responding to emails though, marking things for response later when I’m able to think and have a proper keyboard.

I decided it might be worth asking some trusted colleagues if they implemented ‘inbox zero’ and find out if they had any email best practices I could learn from. I got some great responses from Ali G. Ravi, Gillo Cutrupi, Lucy Chambers, Kristin Antin, Ruth Miller, Niels ten Oever, Tin Geber & Tom Longley,. Here’s what I learned.

Be intentional

  • Take a good look at how you use your email and your daily email habits. Is it a task list? A way of documenting transactions? A research tool? Or merely a communications avenue? If it’s mostly a task list, then inbox zero is probably something achievable. If it’s anything else, then it’s about having a lean, healthy and well sorted inbox.
  • Have more than one email address. It’s a super efficient practice to have separate inboxes for work and personal mail. Also check if your email provider has a ‘catch-all’ feature, that way you can create email addresses on the fly (i.e. yourname+listname@yourprovider.com) that can be easily filtered out of your inbox. Niels ten Oever tells me that he doesn’t bother with folders but instead creates separate email addresses for every list and specific tasks (such as invoices or projects) to properly manage those emails.
  • Reduce how much you use your email address. Tom Longley’s golden rule is: ‘CURB YOUR FEAR OF MISSING OUT.’ Unsubscribe from sources you don’t read or need to pay attention to.

Have a consistent workflow for when and how you read your inbox email

  • Archive instead of delete. Lucy Chambers told me that she implements a ‘only ever touch an email once before archiving‘ rule. Like me, it seems most people use their email for filing and documentation – and having that archive folder is the quickest route to slimming down that inbox down but not loosing key emails.
  • Lucy also uses the ‘can I respond in 30 seconds?‘ rule. If not the email gets moved to a to-do list or tagged.
  • Have a potential route out of the inbox for every email that comes in. If you subscribe to a lot of email lists and potentially want to use them for research, set up folders. Use filters to move your email to folders, or apply colour to incoming email to make it easier to sort through. Tin Geber uses OS X’s Mail smart mailboxes to stay on top of lists he’s subscribed to.
  • Use ‘Mute’ Lucy Chambers highly recommends using this feature built into Gmail. If a thread is becoming tedious and there are too many responses, just mute it. Note that in Thunderbird you can also select Message->Ignore Thread.
  • Use ‘Snooze’ Ruth Miller loves being able to get an email to reappear in her inbox at a later time. This forces her to really consider when she’s going to get back to something and creates a good kind of pressure to respond when messages come back. Sadly this is not a common feature in mail clients.

Get a good view

  • ThreadVis in action

    Ali G Ravi says he switches views depending on what he’s doing, either looking at a unified inbox for all his email addresses or switching to a view that sorts by thread. He is also very fond of a Thunderbird extention called Thread Vis, which displays a small graphic visualising the content of the email.

  • Be comfortable with your display. Use preferences to adjust fonts and sizing. Niels uses a Thunderbird add-on, ‘TT DeepDark‘, to make things easier on the eyes. Kristin Antin uses a Thunderbird extension called ‘Elementary’ that adds greylines to her inbox.
  • Also use tabs (available in OS X Mail and Thunderbird) for each inbox you have, or on any particular folders you set up.
  • Use filters to put colour in your inbox. Gillo Cutrupi uses colours to let him know If it’s from a known sender and mentions his name (Note: this doesn’t work if they are addressing you as ‘hey darlin’ or ‘hey, hot stuff’ – which of course, Gillo gets A LOT). There’s nothing like visual queues to indicate email from important sources.

Understand how multi-device syncing works

  • If you want your email inbox and folders synced accross your devices, know how that will work. For instance, you want IMAP and not POP. However, unless you have set up a filter on your email server (not your client), any automatic movement into a folder will only happen when the filter runs on that device. If you are using IMAP the move will sync to your other devices after that happens. Big thanks to Tin Geber for being patient and explaining how this works to me. But you need to have plenty of storage on your IMAP server for this to work.

Use a client you like

  • There’s plenty out there and everyone I talked to has a particular favorite. Basically you should use the one that best supports your workflow. I’d also recommend using a client that will work the same on all your devices, but this gets tough on phones and tablets. I’ve been using Mail OS X for years, but I’ve been realising that the synchronicity with iOS devices is not what it should be. I’m actually starting to warm to using Thunderbird on my laptop, as it actually has some decent features via the add-ons. Ruth Miller recommends Mailbox, which has a snooze feature and is supported by many devices. Niels and Tom have mentioned a text based client called Mutt – which terrifies me, but hey, its all about how you feel most comfortable!
  • Learn your email client. For many of the recommendations discussed in this post, there may be tools built into your email client, or third-party plug-ins, that can help you to better organize your inbox. Alternately, if your email client doesn’t fit your workflow, it may be times to consider some alternatives, which is not always possibly, especially on mobiles.

Understand email and digital security

  • Email can easily be read on its way over the internet and into your inbox. Likewise it can be easily read after you hit the send button. First and foremost, understand how information you are sending over the internet MIGHT make others vulnerable. A good practice is to use encryption whenever you can, regardless of the content of the email. Mac OS X Mail users can use GPGTools and Thunderbird users can use the Enigmail add-on. We should expect that encryption is built into our email clients and demand it until they do.

So what I’ve learned is not to be so worried about ‘inbox zero’, but have a good plan for managing and storing email over the long term.

Big thanks to Ric Mallamo, who helped me copy edit this post.