The one simple trick for achieving Zero Inbox

Inbox Zero, where you keep your inbox empty and stay up to date with your incoming emails, seems impossible to most people, who tend to have hundreds or thousands of emails in their inboxes. 

In fact, Inbox Zero is easy using this one simple trick: 

Make sure every incoming email is covered by a filter. 

Wow, nice! (Wait, what?)

Why Inbox Zero unlocks the power of email

Based on open standards that no single billionaire can control, and with four billion users, email is the ultimate social network. It's fast, easy and asynchronous. Messages are threaded. You can get attachments. Nothing is algorithmically sorted in a way that's designed to cause distraction and addiction. 

But people dislike email and predict or encourage its demise for one simple reason: They get overwhelmed by the quantities and low quality of incoming email. They "hold" emails in the inbox to be dealt with or replied to later. Over time, the inbox becomes an unmanageable problem that produces anxiety, denial and guilt. 

The bad but common solution is to favor closed, non-universal forms of communication, like Slack or WhatsApp or Facebook or texting or, most likely, several services. This reduces the inbox overload problem because not everybody can reach you and because you can't reach everybody on any single service. Email alternatives tend to be inferior to email in every way except that one way — they don't make you feel as overwhelmed by un-processed communication. 

The good solution is to fix email, not abandon it for limited, proprietary and multiple alternatives. 

So let's fix email. 

How to fix email

I'll describe this technique for Gmail, specifically, although the same idea works for any email system that uses "filters" or "rules" and also allows you to create and use folders. 

Gmail specifically offers for you to use up to five categorized inboxes. 

  • Primary

  • Social

  • Promotions

  • Updates

  • Forums

In my experience, this just creates five out-of-control inboxes instead of one. I recommend using just Primary (Click on the Settings gear icon and choose "See all Settings," then tap on the Inbox tab and deselect all the inboxes that are not primary.)

Instead of multiple inboxes, create your own multiple folders for different kinds of content. The purpose of this separation is to divide emails according to kind and time. For example, you might put newsletters all in one folder, or divide newsletters into two folders — professional and personal. You might have a folder (as I do) just for Google Alerts. Another one might be for professional marketing where you want browse these messages, but only once a week. Create folders based on what kind of content it is, and also by how often you want to look at it. Also remain open to the idea of creating new folders as the need arises. 

The power of this division-of-email-into-folders business is that it's far faster and energy-efficient to rip through content that's all of a kind. Rather than looking at a newsletter, followed by a note from your mom, followed by an announcement by Google, followed by an Amazon notification that your order has been shipped -- which forces your brain to waste energy on needless mental switching — you can instead read all of your newsletters together, then switch gears and process the next kind of email all together. 

The inbox is for messages you go through once, twice or maybe three times a day. Other folders might be browsed every other day, weekly or even never (I use some folders just for future reference).

Once you've set up the destination folders for different kinds of email, you apply this technique every time you get an email. 

The process is simple. Every single email you encounter in your inbox goes through the same processes: Either unsubscribe or block it from coming in again, or apply a filter to it that sends it to the desired location into one of your folders. 

You apply a filter in Gmail with the message open by clicking on the More Options menu (the three vertical dots) and choosing "Filter messages like this." 

In the "From" line, I often like to change the email address to just the domain (say, "elgan.com" instead of "mike@elgan.com") That applies the rule to any email that comes from the company who sent it. 

In most cases you'll choose three check boxes: 

  1. First, click "Skip the inbox." 

  2. Then click on "Create filter," check the "Apply the label" box, then the "Choose label" drop-down menu and select the folder you'd like the email to go to.

  3. Then click "Also apply filter to matching conversations."

If you want the email to always arrive in your inbox and not in any of your folders, then instead check the "Never send it to Spam" box, and also the "Star it" box. By starring emails you've designated for the Inbox, you'll easily notice the emails in your inbox that do not have a star, and therefore need a filter applied to them.

To recap, take one of the following four actions with every incoming email: 

  • Unsubscribe

  • Block sender

  • Create a filter to auto-send into one of your folders

  • Process normally because it has the right filter already

By simply doing this with every single email, you'll spend a little more time with each email for awhile. Eventually, you'll spend a LOT less time on your emails. 

The inbox will shrink to the point where only the emails you want to see there will appear. At that point processing that small number of emails and achieving zero inbox is easy.