Chasing Inbox Zero: How to Control Your Email Inbox, Without Letting It Control You.

A friend of mine caught a glimpse of my email inbox the other day. We were speaking about something else, and she was compelled to ask, “Is that your inbox? Do you really only have 7 emails in your inbox?”   I glanced at it and said, “I guess. Two of these came in while you were standing here, and the others are things I’m closing out this morning.”  


You see, I strive to achieve “Inbox Zero”. It’s a magical state where your inbox for email is completely empty… no emails that are left unread, unanswered, unfiled, un-whatever-it-was-you-were-supposed-to-do-with-it.  Everything has either been acted upon, scheduled-to-be-acted upon, filed, or deleted. It’s a wonderful state to be in, but it doesn’t happen magically. You need a way to deal with what you already have, and a way to handle what comes your way in the future.  BOTH of these are attainable.  



The ultimate goal of “Inbox Zero” is having an inbox in which

you know that everything that is in it has been read, reviewed,

and you know exactly the next step that comes from it.  


email inbox 2


Doesn’t that just sound great? Doesn’t being in control of your inbox, not the other way around, sound like something you’d love to feel every day?  Because, let’s face it. An out of control inbox can help a lot of things feel out of control in our life, create stress, create anxiety, and just make us feel like we’re failing.   You know if you’re in that dark place, when you stare at that unwieldy inbox and think: 


  • I’m afraid things are falling through the cracks… I must have forgotten to do something in there.
  • People are probably waiting (and maybe not so patiently anymore) for me to get back to them.
  • I have to keep all of this, don’t I? What if I NEED it either because I will need the info in it, or I need to cover my butt with evidence of something in the future?
  • I need to find something quickly, and it’s always a process. First I sort, then I search. Or, search, then sort. Why can’t I find what I need, when I need it? 
  • It’s kind of my “to-do” list.  I keep everything here to remind me what I need to do.  I’m just not actually DOING those things. 
  • There are hundreds… even thousands of emails in my inbox.  I *want* it to be better, but don’t know where to start, how to start… it’s just SO overwhelming


You already know you don’t want to live like that, that feeling this way is stressful, and that you can imagine a different way of managing your email, your time, your tasks, your energy and your sanity.  So, how do we get there? 


My friend seemed dubious, not that *I* could achieve that, but that it would be something that SHE could ever achieve.  I offered to help her get to a plan that would get her much closer to where she wanted to be, with simple steps.  Then, I thought, “Maybe I could share it with all of Clever Girl Nation?”



Getting to a new state in inbox and email management is two broad steps:


1.  Clean up what you have.

2.  Create a system for the future.


1. Clean up what you have, in 3 steps.

  • FIRST: Your inbox is like a big pile of deferred decisions.  A physical pile is easy to grab and start moving into smaller piles, and tackling one at a time.  For an inbox, we can accomplish that by creating folders, and moving email into each sub-folder.  Here are a few suggestions on how we can start sorting through what you have, and breaking them down into more manageable parts


    • Hunt for what you don’t need, and get rid of that first, through deleting them.  We can do that a few ways:


Sort by sender.  You will spot groups of emails from the same sender (newsletters? advertisements/spam? personal emails from someone you know you don’t need to keep?)  that you DON’T NEED TO READ and can just select and delete all together.

Sort by date. You *may* just be able to say, “Listen, there can’t be anything in this inbox more than xx months or years old that I really need. I’m willing to throw caution to the wind and just select everything that date or older, and hitting delete.

Keyword search:  If I want to find things that are likely spam or newsletters, without sorting, I do a search for the word “Unsubscribe”.  It won’t catch everything, but will get a ton.  I can also search on words that might not mean as much to me now as they did in the past.  An example might be if you went on a trip to Germany a year ago, so know that there are plenty of emails associated with “Germany” that you probably don’t need to hold onto, search “Germany”. 


    • Start to break out what’s left into manageable sections, similarly to what we did above, by creating subfolders as holding pens for further review:


Sort by sender, or groups of senders:   You can create a folder for each key sender or group of senders, and move all the associated emails into each folder. 

Sort by date:  You can create a folder, which obviously has older folders with less important emails for your future, in chunks of dates.  If your inbox covers more than one year, you may break it out into 6 month or year long folders.  If your inbox is less than one year, maybe “current month”, “previous two months” and then the previous quarters before that.

Keyword search:  If there are topics you want to gather, like for specific projects or events, a keyword search might help you gather most of the relevant emails and assign it to a folder for review. 

  • SECOND: GO through the subfolders and determine the ACTION for each email. You can decide you’re going to do one folder a day for a week, or whatever makes this process feel manageable to you.  Remember… every step you take towards organizing your email is PROGRESS!As we’re reviewing our holding pen folders, we’re going to read each one and then assign it to a new ACTION FOLDER that will cover all the email worth keeping. Create a set of action folders, allowing you to gather emails with the same next step.  Then you can go back to them when you’ve completed all your sorting and assigned an action for each. There are 6 actions / statuses of emails: 


    • Do.  This requires and action that can only be taken by you, and this action must be taken. 
    • Delegate. This needs to be forwarded to someone else for that person to act or take care of and complete. 
    • Waiting For.   This can help be a holding place for emails you’ve already delegated or taken some action on, and they only way it gets closed out is because you’ve heard back or validated in some way that the action is complete.  It’s a reminder that the current step is in someone else’s court, and you don’t want to lose complete sight of it, yet there is NO ACTION for you right now.  (Clever Girl Tip: I have a subfolder in there for Receipts & Shipping notifications for things I’ve ordered. I can keep track of them while I’m waiting for an item to arrive, without the emails distracting me from things I need to do.)
    • Delete.  Okay, this really means “delete it at move it to the trash folder”. You don’t have to create a whole new “Delete” folder… just find that button and get to it!
    • Defer. This may require an action, at some point, but it is not time bound, no one is waiting for it, you haven’t necessarily committed to it, etc. You need to keep it in sight, but it doesn’t require action or attention right now.  At some point, it needs to move to either DO/ DELEGATE / DELETE, and you’ll regularly review these emails to make sure you’re keeping an eye on them. 
    • Reference/File.  This is an email that requires no action, but you know you want/need to keep it for future reference.  Hopefully, you have those reference folders set up in a way that works for you and how you’ll recall that information when you want to pull it… but that’s a post for another time.  Right now, we just want to make sure it gets out of your inbox, and into a place that you’ve dedicated for longer term, “just in case” keeping. 


  • THIRD: Now that everything is assigned to an ACTION FOLDER, start addressing them.   You can do a little every day to catch up. Focus on “DO” first, since that is likely the items which really require your attention.   And, now, you have the infrastructure to support a great system going forward!  Read on for more tips on how to create that system…




2. Create a system to handle the email in the future.

  • Set time frames for when you will first review incoming email. You’ll be a lot more focused on execution if you are opening and checking email for 2 minutes each hour, than you will by just passively receiving and glancing at email all day.  
  • When you read emails, assign them instantly to an ACTION FOLDER.  The exception:  If you can take the action you need to take in 2 minutes or less, do it RIGHT NOW.  Obviously, “Delete” is an easy one. But if it is a quick question, or a simple delegation, do it now. Everything else can be placed in an ACTION FOLDER for time to process later in the day.  Which brings me to: 
  • Create time for REVIEW and ACTION, when you’ll go through your current ACTION FOLDERS and commit to processing. You may find you can do this once a day, or you may find you need to do this several times a day.  You may even find that you want to use subfolders in your DO file, like one for each day of the week, or a “high priority” vs “done sometime today” for prioritization. You’ll find what works with you to make you feel like you are being as responsive as you feel you need to be, and you’re managing the stress level related to it. 
  •  GET LESS EMAIL.  Find those newsletters or advertising campaigns that just don’t bring value to you any more.  Sure, you want to know when your favorite store is having their semi-annual sale, but do you need to have 3 emails a week from them the rest of the year?  Of course, not. Unsubscribe from the email lists that just aren’t critical to your life these days.   (As I was typing this sentence, I got an email from a company I never really shop at any more, took my own advice, and just unsubscribed!  It was a little annoying and took a few more seconds to find the right link and go to their website, but it will save ME time later on because it won’t arrive any more.)
  • Use tools and systems that help process what comes in, like filters, tags, flags or apps.  I won’t go too much into that here, because that might be more of an expert level for some of you, but rest assured, there are tons of ways out there to use technology to help you receive, reply to and create emails.   Research this if it interests you, and let me know what you tried and what worked!  




Sheeuw!   That was a lot, but I hope you are able to see just how doable this is, and why it is a good idea to take this on, whether it’s your work email, your home email, or both.  I’ve summarized some tips on how to start attacking the email you have, but ultimately, what I hope you take away from this is:


  • When you think of your emails in terms of your action that you take, it’s a lot easier for you to do what comes next, and move the email to its final resting place (the Reference file or the trash can!)
  • This doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You can start small and break this down into manageable steps.
  • Every little bit helps, and in not a lot of time, you can completely transform your inbox.
  • You CAN control your inbox, and make it STOP controlling YOU!







  1. Week 16 of the Clever Girl Organizing Challenge: Managing Your Digital Life | - […] If you are tackling emails, the goal is probably to get to Inbox Zero.  I’ve written about this in the…

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