How to Achieve Inbox Zero

Achieve Inbox Zero

Teachers and trainers really are the busiest people I know.

For years, my email inbox was the bane of my working life. Try as I might, I just couldn't get on top of managing it. It was a huge distraction and a source of stress. Can you relate to this?

Administration always takes a back seat to teaching.

Today, however, my inbox is virtually empty. I am on top of all my tasks. I know exactly who I am waiting for email replies from AND I don't feel stressed.

Do you want to know my (not so secret) strategy? Read on.

1. What is Inbox Zero?

Here's the thing: it's not what you think it is.

There is a common misconception that Inbox Zero is all about having an empty email inbox. If that was the case, achieving Inbox Zero would be easy.

You'd just delete all of your emails at the end of the day, regardless of whether or not they've been dealt with.

Or, you could create the illusion of organisation by creating a sub-folder to your inbox and call it "in progress". Then you drag all the emails in your inbox there.

Both of these methods create an empty inbox. However, they are not affecting your productivity in a positive way.

You are simply avoiding a problem.

Inbox Zero creator, Merlin Mann, explains:

“It’s about how to reclaim your email, your atten­tion, and your life. That “zero?” It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox - it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.”

All About the Process

Inbox Zero is all about the process rather than the end result. An empty inbox is useless without an email management workflow or process behind it.

If you have a trusted process to deal with your emails, you stop worrying about them. You stop being controlled by them. You free up space in your brain to focus on other things.

The process leads to an empty, or nearly empty, inbox.

Thoughts on Faking it

You can certainly fake Inbox Zero by focussing on the result (an empty inbox).

You could allocate a few hours (days?!) to clearing out your inbox and enjoy the feeling of satisfaction afterwards.

But it won't last.

If you don't have a process in place for dealing with your emails, pretty soon you'll be back where you started.

The aim of this blog post is to help you set up a process for managing your emails.

2. The Problem With Email

Before we dive into setting up an email management workflow, let's just take a moment to consider why email is such a problem for so many people.

It's Not Always the Best Communication Method

OK, this one's on you! How many times have you sent an email when a quick telephone call or face-to-face chat would have been more appropriate or efficient?

Email is often seen to be the path of least resistance when it most definitely isn't.

That's because...

It Generates More Emails

This is particularly apparent when you make use of the CC (carbon copy) function.

If you send an email to one person, and CC seven others, you might receive eight emails back in short succession. Even if the response is just something like "got it, thanks", that's still another email requiring your attention.

Email etiquette seemingly dictates that every email requires a response. But when does it end?

It Creates an Urge to Respond

Dealing with emails is not something employees are paid for. Check your job description. It's probably not in there.

And if you are self-employed... well, that gets even more complicated!

As such, we tend to think that dealing with emails is quick and easy. When an email comes in, we want to get it dealt with quickly so we can get on with our actual jobs. We feel a real urge to respond immediately.

The trouble is, emails are not always "quick and easy" to deal with. As such, email tends to consume a disproportionate amount of your time and energy.

It's Not a Task Manager

A lot of people use their email inbox as a task manager or to-do list. However, an inbox is just not designed for that.

A task manager or to-do list should allow you to clearly indicate due dates and to prioritise accordingly. You just cannot do this with email. Will delve into this later in the post.

It's Always There

If you receive emails on your mobile device, and you leave your email program running on your computer, you simply cannot get away from email. It's a constant distraction.

3. The Big Clean Up

How many emails are in your inbox RIGHT now? 25? 30? 500? 1000? Are you too afraid to look? Don't worry - I've been there.

Before you create a process for managing your emails, it's important to tidy up what's in your inbox first. That way you can start fresh.

Warning: this is going to take some time. But it's important. You MUST allocate some time to this.

Here's how you are going to clean up your inbox:

Set Up an Archive Folder

Set up a sub-folder, under your inbox, called ARCHIVE.

The animated GIF below shows you how to do this in Gmail. Inbox sub-folders are referred to as labels in Gmail.

If you use a platform other than Gmail, a quick Google search will show you how to set up inbox sub-folders.


[Note about this GIF: I have called the sub-folder ARCHIVES in Gmail as it will not let you call the folder ARCHIVE - any name or variation of this is totally fine.]

Process Those Emails

Go through every email.

Delete those that are no longer relevant. That's right, DELETE.

If emails are no longer current, but you might wish to refer back to them in the future, drag them into your new ARCHIVE folder.

You'll have emails left in your inbox after this process - that's OK.

Thie GIF below shows you how to add an email to a folder in Gmail.


Should I Set Up Archive Sub-Folders?

There is no need to set up sub-folders under the ARCHIVE folder as you can use your email provider's search function to find what you need.

Emails that require action/processing should remain in your inbox for now.

You are now ready to put a system in place and start heading to Inbox Zero.

To Do

  1. Set up your ARCHIVE folder.

  2. Process your inbox.

4. Make a List

Earlier in this post, we identified reasons why your inbox should not be your to-do list or task manager. Namely, it's difficult to visually prioritise emails and allocate due dates.

Here are some more reasons:

  • You are not in control of incoming items - if your inbox is your to-do list, anyone can add to it at any time.

  • It's hard to see what the actual "to-do" item is without opening the email and spending time reading it. People rarely give their emails descriptive subjects.

  • Your inbox is no longer an effective inbox - treating your email like a to-do list makes an inefficient to-do list, but it also creates an inefficient email inbox.

Convinced yet?

So clearly, you need a task manager or to-do list.

Tasks in your email inbox should be added to your to-do list.

Below are some recommended approaches to keeping a master to-do list. Feel free to explore them all, or use an entirely different approach.

You can do whatever you want, as long as you are not using your inbox as a to-do list!


There is an overwhelming selection of digital to-do list tools available. Below are three that I know and trust:

  • Asana: a powerful, but free, project management tool. The learning curve with Asana is a little steep, but to help with that, I recommend Megan Minns' Asana HQ course.

  • Trello: a free task and project management tool often preferred by visual people as projects are laid out on virtual boards with cards attached.

  • Workflowy: a very simple list app that's highly customisable. If you want to really make Workflowy work for you, I recommend Frank Deganaar's amazing book, Do Way, Way More in Workflowy.


If you want to use a paper to-do list there are just two things you need:

  • A notepad (consider investing in a yellow legal pad so your to-do list is always easy to spot on your desk or in your bag)

  • A pen

Re-write your to-do list every day so you have the opportunity to review your priorities.

The video below covers an interesting paper-based to-do list approach:

To Do

It's now time to select your to-do list method of choice. Once you've done this, you are ready to develop an email processing system.

5. Email Management Workflow

It's time to reclaim your inbox.

Set Up Your Folder Structure

It's recommended that you set up the following three sub-folders below your inbox: ARCHIVE, REPLY and WAITING.

You set up an ARCHIVE folder earlier (The Big Clean Up). Set up the remaining two sub-folders in the same way.

What Are the Folders For?

  • REPLY: emails that will take longer than two minutes to deal with go in this folder. For example, an email asking you for your opinion on something (this would require thought).

  • WAITING: emails where you are waiting for a response, or you want to process later, go in this folder. For example, you have delegated a task and you are waiting for an update.

  • ARCHIVE: emails that have been dealt with, but you might like to refer back to at a later date, go to this folder.

The Two-Minute Rule

If you receive an email that takes less than two minutes to deal with, you should deal with it straight away.

The idea with the two-minute rule is that it would take almost two minutes to process that email, so it may as well be dealt with and got rid of.

Schedule Email Time

The holy grail of email management is to get to a stage that you can set specific points in the day to process, review and reply to emails.

At all other times, your email program is closed and you do not check your mobile device for emails.

Workflow Diagram

Here's a diagram of your email management workflow:

Email Workflow.png

Video Workflow

Here's a video outlining the workflow for more visual learners:


  1. Set up your REPLY and WAITING sub-folders.

  2. Process the remaining emails in your inbox.

  3. Schedule time for processing, reviewing and replying to emails (add it to your calendar).

And That's it!

I really hope you find this process help. Let me know in the comments how you get on.