Inbox Zero: Is It Realistic?

Email was supposed to make our lives easier. Instead of trying to track someone down via phone for a conversation or waiting days for a letter to reach its destination, email provided a means of faster communication between parties. Sending an email meant that we (theoretically) reduced the amount of paper in our offices and saved a few virgin forests in the process. It was quick, it was clean, and it was as close as our keyboard. But a funny thing happened along the way: email became a vehicle for communications abuses of all sorts – from spam messages to chain letters to a proliferation of marketing materials that began to clutter up our lives. It became more and more difficult to separate essential communications from everything else, and our inboxes grew and grew.

email inbox zero

{photo credit: flickr}

Maybe you’ve wondered where your inbox stands in terms of size, and how yours compares to others out there. News site PandoDaily did research recently about the size of email inboxes and discovered that the average size of an email inbox is 8,024 messages. Maybe you just breathed a sigh of relief that your inbox is nowhere near 8,024 messages. But if the thought of 8,024 email messages in your inbox fills you with panic because you can see your future and it’s not pretty, then read on.

How do you keep your inbox from getting out of hand?

First, you need to understand why your inbox is bursting at the seams. This is an individual issue, dependent upon your work environment, lifestyle, and personal preferences. If you subscribe to newsletters, receive notifications from your social media accounts, or are in the habit of sending links to yourself, it’s easy to develop a backlog of unopened emails in a very short time frame. Add to that the messages that you receive from coworkers, emails from friends, and the occasional spam message that seeps through your spam filters, and your inbox is poised to explode.

Once you understand the nature of the problem, you can take steps to alleviate it.

  1. Unsubscribe
    If you’re subscribed to newsletters you never read, coupon sites that you never use, and news alerts that are old news by the time you get to read them… unsubscribe from all of these things. There are a number of ways to do this. You can take the time-consuming route of unsubscribing to each of these services individually, or you can mass unsubscribe using a service such as, which does the dirty work for you.
  2. Filter
    The types of messages you receive will determine the types of filters you set up for them. Take a few moments to consider the actions you need to take for specific types of emails –messages regarding a specific project, for example – and create filters accordingly. If you’re one of those lucky individuals who receives a lot of FWD emails from friends, you can neatly and automatically filter those into the circular file. After all, you don’t read those political rants, right?
  3. Stop Notifications
    Notifications for your social media accounts routed to your email can fill your inbox fairly quickly, particularly if you participate in more than one social media service. Turning off these notifications will eliminate a sizeable amount of unnecessary clutter. Resolve to check your social media at specific times of the day if you’re concerned about missing something.
  4. Archive/Delete
    If your inbox is filled with emails that have been read but not deleted, now is the time to take care of them. A sizeable portion of emails left in many inboxes are messages that have been read but not deleted. If you truly can’t bring yourself to delete these messages, archive them. Chances are, however, you’ll never visit your archives in search of a particular message. Regardless whether you delete or archive read messages, your goal should be the same: move them out of your inbox.

What’s next? Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero can be something of a Holy Grail for email management. Striving for a clean inbox is a challenge, and this is where your reserve of discipline will come in handy.

After you have eliminated the fluff and clutter of non-essential email in your inbox, you should be left with only those messages that need to be addressed. Answer questions, set meetings, send information — whatever it is you need to do with the remaining messages, do it. Most importantly, archive or delete them as you go. Be ruthless.

Achieving Inbox Zero status shouldn’t be a one-time event, however. You can maintain an empty inbox with a few strategies designed to move things along, improving your overall productivity. This requires you to reframe your view of your inbox, seeing it as more of a to-do list than as a file. Depending on your distractibility, you can either respond promptly to emails as they come in or set aside a time for review and response to messages. You may choose to promptly respond to only those messages that pertain to a certain project and leave the rest for a specific time. Whatever the method you adopt, be sure it’s one you can stay with long-term. And if you find your email inbox filling with an onslaught of messages again, go back to the beginning and start over.

Is Inbox Zero realistic? What do you think?