Ever since I started using Gmail in 2005, I've tried my best to abide by one rule: inbox zero.
For me, this doesn't mean there are always zero messages in my inbox — at the moment, I have one in my personal inbox and four in my Vox inbox. But these are all tasks I need to deal with or emails I have to reply to. Everything else gets archived, labeled, or, if it's spam, deleted.
Inbox zero might feel like a hopeless goal. Most people are drowning in a guilty sea of unread emails, and it seems like it'd be impossible to read all of them, let alone reply to all of them.
So here's my secret: I don't get to inbox zero by reading and replying to all of my emails. I do it by reading as few of them as possible.
For that, I use Gmail's labels and filters to minimize the number that ever hit my inbox. I mute endless reply-all conversations, unsubscribe from almost every newsletter, and unmercifully send the onslaught of messages I get from PR reps to the spam folder. Despite all this, I manage to seldom miss important emails, and can quickly glance at my inbox to see the ones that need responses at any given time.
This works because of the core idea of inbox zero: your inbox shouldn't be a place to keep all your email. It's a place to keep only a handful of recent emails that absolutely need to be dealt with. Many people mark things as "unread" for this purpose — but the problem with that is it obscures how many truly new emails you have.
Inbox zero might sound daunting. But by using the tools built into Gmail (and a handful of other tricks), I put less time and effort into staying at inbox zero than you might by trying to read everything and inevitably letting it pile up. Even better, by changing your relationship to email — and liberating yourself from the obligation to read every single one — you can eliminate the guilt you've felt for years whenever you've fallen behind.
(Note: This whole article is written for people using Gmail. Most of the same tools and options are available with Outlook and other programs, but they look a little different.)
1) If you're in deep, start by declaring email bankruptcy
If you have inbox or unread email counts in the hundreds or thousands, you should definitely declare email bankruptcy right away. This means archiving (not deleting) anything more than, say, a couple of weeks old.
This might sound drastic, but plenty of people do it and live to tell about it. There's just no way you're going to suddenly force yourself to read hundreds of old emails — and these old, outdated messages are holding you back. If you missed a really important one, it's probably already too late to do anything about it. And if it were that important, someone probably would have bugged you about it by now.
If you're still terrified of the idea, remember you're just archiving, not deleting. This means the emails are still saved, and you can always search for them later from the Gmail home screen, just like you probably used to search your inbox.
Start by checking this box at the very left:
Then click that underlined text below that says "Select all 321 conversations" to select everything in your inbox. Finally, click archive, which is that button with the box and downward-pointing arrow.
Poof. You are now at inbox zero.
To restore the last couple weeks' worth of emails to your inbox, click the "All Mail" button on the left side (it might be hidden under "More"), then check that same selection box and then the "Move to Inbox" button. Do as many times as necessary to get back the last few weeks — but no more than that. No cheating.
2) Turn off Gmail's unhelpful default sorting options
To start using your new, clean inbox, it helps to turn off a few options and categories that Gmail turns on by default. In theory, they're meant to automatically sort incoming email into categories (by separating out important messages, or making special tabs for notifications from social networks and retailers' promotions), but in practice, they don't work all that well. And you're about to set up labels and filters to do so much more accurately.
To turn off these options, go to Settings (that little gear icon at the top-right of the screen), click the Inbox tab, set your Inbox type to Default, and uncheck all the categories besides Primary:
3) Archive everything; label when necessary
Next, whittle down the recent few weeks of emails you preserved in your inbox. As you do, practice the strategy that will rule your new email life: relentlessly archiving everything and labeling some of it so you can still find it easily later. (Labels are basically folders; the main difference is that a single email can have multiple labels at the same time.)
Everyone has their own system for labeling. I keep emails in the inbox if they need a reply or action I'll be able to handle quickly; some people use a "to do" label for this purpose and keep the inbox entirely empty.
My labels generally fall into two groups: those for emails I get constantly and want to automatically divert from my inbox (like Google alerts I have set up for various keywords, and the alerts I get from scientific journals about new papers), and labels for emails I get less regularly but want to be able to call up quickly later on (say, travel reservations, or article ideas people have sent me).
To make a new label, click "More" on the toolbar on the left side of the page, then "Create new label."
To add a label to an existing email, click that little button that looks like a sales tag:
And then archive it. Seriously. It's not disappearing — it just won't clutter your inbox anymore.
You can also find emails easily within each label by clicking that little triangle in the search box at the top of the page, then searching within that label rather than all mail:
4) Use filters to label things for you
One big benefit of this system is that it lets you use filters, which do the work of sorting your email for you.
You already use one filter by default: the Spam folder. This one uses Google's algorithm to identify things that look like spam and block them from your inbox.
But you can create your own filters to find and label emails that aren't spam. For instance, I have filters that label all the alerts I get from scientific journals as "Press Alerts" and have them automatically archived, so they never hit my inbox. Then I read through them later when I have the time.
To make a filter, click that little triangle in the search box again:
You can create useful filters with a number of different search strategies. The journal alerts I get always come from the same senders, so I put their email addresses in the "From" field. If you get daily emails from Groupon or other websites promoting sales, you can do the same thing. Maybe there's a daily or weekly company-wide email that comes to your work inbox that always has a similar subject line — in that case, enter it in the subject field.
At the lower right, click "Create filter with this search," which will send you to options to automatically Label, Archive, and do other things to any email that comes in and fits the parameters:
I mostly use filters so that the emails caught in them skip the inbox and get labeled — but still show up as unread. But it all depends on how important the emails are. If you don't really care about reading every single Groupon email, but still like to get them and have them stored under the same label, you might mark them all as read.
The bottom line is you need to really consider what sorts of emails you want showing up in your inbox over and over, distracting you from your work and piling up every day. If something isn't all that important, think about how much time you'll save by letting Gmail archive it for you — and remember you'll still be able to go back and see it under a label later on.
5) Unsubscribe whenever possible
The very best way to keep your inbox clean is by limiting the amount of mail you get in the first place.
My opinion is that the vast majority of the emails that include an unsubscribe button at the bottom are not worth getting — they're usually a company trying to sell you something, and are never a message that a friend or colleague has specifically intended for you. It's worth considering how many are really worth the time they chew up.
You can manually unsubscribe from each one. Or you can use Unroll.me, a free service that detects all your subscriptions and lets you select which ones you'd like to bundle into a single weekly or monthly email.
Facebook, Twitter, and most other social networks also send out tons of notifications by default as a way to get you to check their sites more frequently. You have to go into your settings on each of these sites to turn them off, but it's definitely worth it over the long term. (If you really want to keep getting these, you can also set up a filter and label to keep them in one spot — or turn back on Gmail's default tab for social emails.)
Finally, for people who get a lot of unsolicited, useless email they can't stop from a variety of email addresses (read: journalists who get bombarded by emails from PR reps), the easiest option is just to send it to the spam folder. After you do this once or twice for a given sender, all that sender's future emails will end up there, too. Sure, some PR reps might send useful emails with genuine story tips, but they're in the extreme minority — and in essence, you're giving each sender one chance to do so before consigning future emails to the spam folder.
6) Sign up sneakily
Meanwhile, an interesting way of diverting a huge range of unwanted emails is by giving out an alternate email address. In Gmail, if you stick random periods into your email address, or put a plus sign and then another word at the end, emails sent to those addresses will still come to you — but you can use those distinctions to filter.
So, for example, if your address was email@example.com, you could put down firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com whenever retailers force you to supply an email address to register for something. Then you could set up a filter to divert any emails sent to those particular addresses from the inbox.
7) Use these other Gmail tricks
Once you have things mostly under control, there are other handy little tricks you can use to make inbox zero easier.
Mute. This lets you unsubscribe from big reply-all email chains. It means that all future replies to the thread will automatically be archived (it's kind of like a single-use filter, just for one email chain).
To mute a chain, it has to be in your inbox. Click More, then Mute.
Send & Archive. Go to general Settings to turn on the "Send & Archive" button — an elegant little function that lets you archive an email as you're sending it.
It's not a huge deal, but if you send lots of email, the time saved will add up. It also promotes good inbox hygiene: if you've replied to an email, it usually means you don't need it around anymore, and the correct place for it is no longer your inbox.
Mark as read. This option is also a time-saving way of dealing with emails you don't actually want to open. Let's say you have a long list of unread Groupon emails that automatically got filtered to a label, but you know you don't actually want to buy anything in them and don't need to read them. If you click on that label, then the box to the left of the archive button (to select all the emails in it), then "More," then finally "Mark as read," you can mark them all as read in one fell swoop.
Inbox appearance. You can also customize the look of your inbox to make it easier to see the emails you actually need. Under Settings, the labels tab lets you choose to show or hide individual labels on the sidebar. You can also set it so a label only shows up when it has an unread email, so it'll catch your attention.
8) Use these handy software programs
Finally, there are some other tools that can make inbox zero a bit easier.
Snooze Your Email, an extension for the Chrome browser, does exactly what it sounds like: it lets you snooze a new email so that it hits your inbox again an hour, a day, or a week later. If you know you can't deal with an email immediately but will have to at a specified time, this can be less distracting than letting it just sit in your inbox or under a "To do" label.
Alternately, the app Boomerang lets you write a response but schedule it to be sent later. It's a weird idea, but it can actually be pretty useful — say, if you want to respond to an email to get it out of your inbox, but don't want to immediately trigger another response from the recipient, making more work for yourself.