Why I Gave Up On Inbox Zero

So many bloggers have been promoting the idea of Inbox Zero. This is the feat of keeping your email inbox at zero.

Hearing my blogging friends talk about having their inbox at zero intrigued me. My email inbox was always filled with tons of emails. Over 100,000 emails at one point.

These bloggers talked about the feelings they had when they saw an empty inbox. They said it was liberating. It was freeing. It was calming.

So I decided to try it for myself. I wiped out those 100,000 emails and started my inbox at zero again. Just like starting a new email account.

At first I was thrilled with my inbox being empty. It did feel freeing.

I felt like I’d made a dent in something that mattered. After all, so many others were saying how great Inbox Zero was.

After months of trying to keep my inbox clear of emails, I gave up.

Maybe it’s not right. Maybe it is. For me, I think it’s okay to have some email in my inbox, even if I’m done with them.

Why I Gave Up On Inbox Zero

I mentioned I gave up on trying to keep my inbox at zero. There’s a reason behind that.

While I was trying to catch up, organize, and delete emails, I realized I was spending much more time in my inbox than I had before.

The pressure to keep my inbox clean was overwhelming. It was busy work. And, in the end, it honestly wasn’t all that important to me.

There’s also the fact I felt like I was doing it to impress others. I could tell my friends how I kept my inbox so tidy and neat.

Eventually, I realized it didn’t matter and if I was doing Inbox Zero to impress others it’s something I shouldn’t be doing.

So I’ve given up on Inbox Zero. But this doesn’t mean I’ve got a cluttered inbox again.

My Alternative To Inbox Zero

While I don’t practice Inbox Zero anymore, I don’t want my inbox to get cluttered again. So I’ve set up some rules for myself.

Here’s how I tame my inbox:

Junk and promotional emails are deleted almost immediately

Blog post notifications are moved to a BLOGS folder when I check emails

Important emails from friends, family, and other sources are kept in the inbox after reading

All other emails are read and then deleted

Like I said, this new method of inbox management doesn’t keep my inbox nice and tidy like Inbox Zero but it has cut down on the amount of read emails left in the inbox. It also makes me feel better than keeping the inbox clean.

I know important emails are still easily accessible, and with Gmail I can quickly search the inbox and other folders to find what I need.

This method works for me. I’m not sure if it will help you but I figure if it works for me, it’ll work for someone else.

Question: How do you manage your email inbox? Please share your methods in the comment section below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Hey Joe! I hope you’re having an awesome morning! One thing I try to do is touch each email only once. I usually fail at it, but it’s a good plan.

    Also, I keep my inbox as a “to do” list. Anything still in there is something that I need to attend to. 29 emails in the inbox? 29 people to respond to or tasks to accomplish.

    It tends to work pretty well.

    • Great suggestion Ellory. A new form of calendar?

      • Calendar? I have tips about managing a calendar too =)

    • Yeah, this is a great way to look at it! You’ve articulated how I approach my inbox perfectly. Each email needs deleting, archiving, or responding to (or a combination thereof). And once it’s been dealt with there is no need to deal with it again.

  • Hi Joe! I tried the Inbox Zero method after reading about that awesome feeling too…and I had that awesome feeling…two or three times. After that, for some reason or another the emails started streaming in. I even tried unsubscribing from blogs I no longer read, but of course, there’s so many awesome new ones that soon I was overwhelmed again. I do three things. First I have folders for different areas of interest and if there is an email I want to keep for later reference, I zip it right over. Secondly, I delete spam (I really don’t get much of that) or ads immediately, and third, if there is an email with important info in it (like your email about your favorite tools) I print it off. I have some binders with sections for things like that. But alas, as I write this I am looking at a very full inbox. I give up. ;o). It’s an awesome feeling too sometimes.

    • Linda, thanks for sharing how you manage your email. It’s interesting see all the different ways people organize.

      One thing I forgot to mention in the post… After those first couple of times feeling elated, those emotions began to turn to dread and anxiousness. I don’t think that’s the way it’s supposed to make us feel.

  • rcsinclair952

    I gave up long ago, myself.

    I figured out long ago, my self worth is not a number. My weight, my bank account, the number of my Facebook friends, or how full my email account do not define me. It is more liberating if I don’t obsess about my inbox and numbers.

    • This post has been interesting. It’s revealing so many people have given up on Inbox Zero.

  • Good post Joe I gave up on it as well. I am more concerned about responding to people and having information that I need when I need it. I think that focusing on the number in our inboxes focuses us on the wrong solution. Instead of how can I get to zero it should be how can I be more organized. l do the same things you do and for now this works. I like you feel better then when I was trying to be at zero:) Have a great day!

    • Thanks Zech for sharing your experience as well. It’s an interesting paradox, huh? Over time, trying to keep the inbox empty, I felt less productive even though it was supposed to help increase productivity.

  • Very convicting! It seems that inbox zero as a goal is really a distraction from getting done what you really need to do. I do much like you do, triage the email deleting a lot and trying to deal with or schedule. I TRY to use the GTD method – and works sometimes. Work in progress.

    • Dale, that’s my feelings regarding Inbox Zero. And then the emotions it creates. I felt guilty not being able to bring it back down and then I felt less productive.

      I think it’s not so much clearing our inboxes that will keep us productive, it’s having a method that works for each individual.

    • GTD works great for emails Dale – I’ve set up the folders, lead by the “@” symbol. When properly implemented, deleting, scanning, and dropping into a folder all take up about the same amount of time.

    • And just a few minutes ago I was at zero;) Oh well.

  • Joe, it sounds like you are doing just a slight variation on the Zero Inbox – you are treating the main inbox as the “figure out what to do next” holding place – you could have a conceptual “Inbox Zero” if you just made a folder titled “Important” “To Assess” or “Review for Action.” then you would basically handle all emails by 1 – deleting, 2 – dropping in BLOGS folder, 3- dealing with immediately and deleting, or (rather than keep in your inbox) move to 4 – Another fold titled “Important” (etc).

    Then you really are at inbox zero : )

    this will make it easier to keep spam or unimportant messages out of the good stuff.

    • That’s possible Jon. It might be a variation where my main inbox is my holding place. But if they never move out of it, I’m not bothered by that fact either.

  • Great thoughts, a person can waist a lot of time and energy getting their inbox to zero every day. I’ve learned that I can’t achieve a zero inbox everyday, which means at times I have to reply to a person/email the next day (Or as soon as I can).

    • Same here Dan. It becomes a waste of energy after awhile. I know I was putting a lot more effort into cleaning up than I should have.

      • Glad we both have learned this lessons:) Great topic!

  • I have heard of this concept, too, and don’t agree with it. Sometimes you want to have an email on hand to refer to, even if it’s not super-important.

    I have created folders for the emails I want to keep, or have to keep. Before deleting an email, you should ask yourself it it contains information that you might need as proof someday. Better to be safe than sorry, and keep it instead of deleting it.

    I have a lot of folders….and still, I am never going to reach inbox zero. What’s more is that I don’t want to. 🙂

    • That’s the opinion I’m leaning towards Lorraine. Inbox Zero is an interesting idea but it’s not the most effective way of managing my inbox either.

  • Zero schmero. I have an inbox for each client plus personal. The average is about 20 emails per day per account. There is simply no way I get through all of them every day. I check at specific times and get to the important ones. Then I go on binges about once a week and get a few of them down to zero or close.

    Having zero emails as a major goal seems pretty average to me. I would rather focus on important stuff.

    • I feel you Matt. It’s not about getting the inbox to zero. It’s getting down to business and getting things done.

  • Joe, I practice David Allen GTD System. I use different folders to organize all my emails. Aat least once a month I just move all my emails into a folder I name “2013”, Next year I will have a “2014” folder. I just hang on to this folder as a Just in Case and then by the Mid Year point of the following year I just make a choice to delete. The biggest problem I have is managing emails that i actually want to hang on to. I use evernote but it becomes a burden at times to make sure I am categorizing everything I have coming into my life.

    • Your folders are a solid idea Brandon. I can see that being very effective.

  • Thanks for this great post, Joseph!

    A couple of years ago I spent the best part of a day creating folders/subfolders for my emails (I have a bad habit of forgetting to go back and reply to things if I don’t do it immediately). I have cultivated a habit of keeping my main inbox at zero simply by virtue of this system. I delete all junk, place any emails that don’t warrant a response in their respective folder (subscriptions, notifications etc), and then spend time each day responding to emails that need a reply, and then archiving them appropriately. As a result I’ve been much better at responding and it’s also decluttered my inbox and made old email a lot easier to find quickly.

    I guess it all depends on the individual why. If you’re pursuing inbox zero in order to impress people then it’s pointless. If it’s the by-product of a desire to be more organised, then great. I never set out for ‘inbox zero’, but it just kind of happens.

    • Interesting perspective Andy. I like that you’ve been able to create folders and a system that works for you. Sounds like you’ve got something that helps keep your inbox clean.

  • I use a similar method to you. I want to make sure I’ve gone through my e-mails to catch everything. I’m much quicker to delete things than I used to be.

    • Good job Jon! Sometimes it’s not about keeping it super clean but better managed.

  • Ah finally something to disagree about! I’m an inbox zero guy…changed my life!

    • No problem on the disagreement Tom (-; We all have different methods to get things done. My biggest issue with Inbox Zero was the way it made me feel if I didn’t accomplish getting my inbox to zero.

  • I’ve tired the zero inbox thing too – like you I haven’t found that it works for me. When it was at zero I felt great, but as soon as a bunch of emails came in, beyond what I could clear instantly, I began to feel bad. Instead of the zero inbox being a positive it just made me feel guilty. Instead I read emails as they come in. Fill or delete those that don’t need a reply. Those that do, but that I can’t instantly complete, I mark as unread so I know the emails I need to come back to and action. I find this a better method than trying to get to zero just for the sake of it.

    • Thanks for sharing your method. I’m learning from others as I see all of the different ways people are doing inbox management.

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