How to: Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero is a technique (coined by Merlin Mann) for managing your email account with ruthless efficiency. I have been maintaining this technique for about 5 years and can show you how to achieve it.

Note: The technique is possible in other mail tools, but for the purposes of this post, we will only be using GMail.

Keyboard shortcuts

The first step is to set up your keyboard shortcuts. Enable them today. (GMail reference)

  1. On a computer, go to Gmail.
  2. In the top right, click Settings Settings and then See all settings. 
  3. Click Settings.
  4. Scroll down to the “Keyboard shortcuts” section.
  5. Select Keyboard shortcuts on.
  6. At the bottom of the page, click Save Changes.

The most important keyboard shortcut is going to be the letter e. When looking at an email, if you type e (with keyboard shortcuts enabled) it will automatically archive the mail. I’ll come back to this later.

Archive everything right now

Go into GMail and select all and then hit the archive button.

The select all checkbox and the archive button

I know this is going to feel crazy, but you have thousands of things in your inbox. You aren’t going to go back and look those old emails. Let them go. If you must, you can deselect emails that you are actively responding to. Its important to make it a clean break. Rip the band-aid. Go cold turkey! Just do it!

Day 1: Unsubscribe or Label

You get two kinds of mail. Marketing and Personal. Marketing mail can be unsubscribed or labeled or even create custom filters. The key is to get them away from your inbox. They don’t belong there.

Every email that has an unsubscribe button, I would suggest doing it unless you REALLY love the content. If you do, then you should create a filter. (GMail Reference)

First you click Filter messages like this
Then you check the right boxes

The options are broad but here is a hint:

  1. Yes, Skip the inbox
  2. Yes, Apply the Label (Make new ones if needed)
  3. Yes, never send to spam (if its good content)
  4. Yes, Also apply to matching conversations

NO to all the others. Don’t use categories. They make life harder not easier.

Processing Mail

During the day you will receive mail. You have to follow the steps

  1. Is it marketing email?
    1. Yes? Create a filter or unsubscribe
  2. Is it something you need to reply to?
    1. No? Press e (Archive it)

That’s it, two steps. But it will be hard for the first few weeks. You are going to have alot of spam and nonsense. The more filters you make, the less trash shows up. The more you archive, the less there is to worry about.


Whenever you receive true spam, like pharmacueticals or phishing attempts, you have to get rid of them by creating a filter and choosing the following from the above settings

  1. Yes, Skip Inbox
  2. Yes, Delete it

You can sometimes make the filter based on the words in the subject. Be harsh. The more filters you make the better.

Also click Report as Spam whenever something makes it through. Sometimes GMail is too aggressive with spam and put real people in there. I check my spam folder once a day to check for false spam.

There is a button called Mark as not spam. This does not work! I’ve pressed it a million times with people who are full blown contacts in my system and it still doesn’t listen. I have to literally make a filter and check the box “Never send to spam” for those people. I wish GMail would do that automatically if I report not spam.

Last thoughts

If you follow these steps, within a month your email intake will dwindle down to manageable levels. You will find your inbox rarely goes above 5-10 emails. The ones in there are only the ones you actively want to respond to.

My GMail used to stress me out. It had tens of thousands of unread messages. Now, its clean as can be. I have 1 email in my inbox for a tennis match this Saturday.

Good luck, I think it will be worth your effort.


Whatya think?