Clean inbox

Clean Inbox or Inbox Zero is an approach that aims to minimise distraction and stress. The premise is the same as using a traditional paper inbox: it should be empty at the end of each day. Obviously, this is an ideal and in practical terms rarely achieved.

The key points

  • The only messages that should be in your inbox are ones that require action (read, reply, task – though a task management system is better suited to the latter)
  • Archive (or file) messages out of your inbox when you are done with them. Delete only truly worthless marketing emails – never delete correspondence.
  • Use search to find emails that have been archived. Folders and labels take effort to maintain and are only useful in a few contexts.
  • Prioritise older messages. Along with the count of messages in your inbox, the age of messages is important too.
  • Try to check email only a few times a day. This removes some of the disruption and inefficiency of switching between things. And definitely turn off audible notifications for email on your phone. In my sector, I feel it is acceptable to respond to email within 2 working days – however your industry may differ. If someone needs you faster, they should have your phone number so they can call you.

Gmail is especially suited to a clean inbox

  • A user’s mailbox is essentially one big pile of mail, and labels function like tags so can exist in multiple locations at once. The inbox is simply a label applied to all new messages as they come in (though you can affect this with filters – though as mentioned above I rarely see their benefit).
  • Turn on Send & Archive under settings to clean messages out of your inbox when you reply to someone.
  • Advanced search has a lot of power if you’re having struggling to find something.
  • The interface was recently refreshed and now includes the ability to snooze messages. This feature allows you to set a date and time for the message to return to your inbox.
  • If you’re interested in logging regular stats on the health of your inbox (or of those in your team), you can try this script to automatically populate a Google Spreadsheet. It records the following for the messages in the inbox: timestamp, the inbox’s email address, total number of messages and the number of days old of the oldest message.