“The best thing about starting a new job is the ease of inbox zero after the first day.get to inbox zero” – Me

Obviously I’m kidding, but all kidding aside, as we all get more entrenched with our jobs, our lives, and our communications, it is very difficult to keep our inbox as the tool it is meant to be–a place for emails to come in and then go out–filed, acted on, deleted.

I am one of the worst offenders. Across my 4 email addresses, my inboxes ranged from 33 to 2,600. It was overwhelming and anxiety-ridden (not sleepless nights anxiety but just little voice anxiety).

Here are the 6 hacks that I use to get my inboxes in order and actually live, and keep, the illustrious Inbox Zero.

Sign up for Unroll.me

This great free service pulls all of your subscription emails–service notifications, social media requests, marketing emails–into one tidy summation that is emailed to you daily. In your Unroll.me dashboard, you can also unsubscribe from anything that you no longer wish to receive in one place.

unroll.me screenshot

Once you sign up for Unroll.me, clean out your subscriptions and go on a massive purge (obviously not any Contactually emails). From there, use the service to keep you on track, your inbox clean, and your attention focused.

Create a DMZ folder

If you are starting with an inbox currently at over 200 messages, create a DMZ folder. DMZ stands for “demilitarized zone”; you’re going to draw a line in the sand and say, “I’m not going to let past inbox hoarding stop me from a future free of clutter.” (I hope there are some people on Capitol Hill reading this).

Once you create the DMZ folder, select all of your messages and drag those in to DMZ. Congratulations, you’re at inbox zero.

If only it were that easy. The premise behind the DMZ folder is that you are able to start fresh and deal with your past email baggage a bite at a time. You are not deleting those messages, but you are committing to using your inbox as the place it was meant to be from day one. From there, set up 10 minutes each day to go through as much of your DMZ folder as time allows and delete, archive, or put in an action folder. Do this every day until your DMZ is at zero.

Remember, you MUST deal with the DMZ folder or else you’re just moving your hoarding to another closet.

Archive all messages over 30 days old

Run a filter for all messages that are over 30 days, select all, and choose to archive all of them.

email archive folder

Imagine your archive folder looks like this.

Chances are, if your inbox is north of 500, this will be a necessary step. Remember that unlike our physical reality where this would be a chaotic dumping of everything into a box with no rhyme or reason, by archiving you are still able to search your messages based on a large number of criteria. Let the software do the heavy lifting.

But what if there’s an important unread or unanswered message from someone in that 30+ day mass-archiving? After 30 days, the person has either gotten back in touch with you for an answer (if they really needed it) or already thinks you’re an asshole (which you are for not answering in less than a month), so just start fresh and be better next time.

Install Boomerang

Boomerang is a Firefox/Chrome/Safari plugin that works with Gmail and Google Apps emails. The plugin is great for these 2 situations that typically keep you from inbox zero:

  • You are waiting on a response to an email and you do not want it to fall between the cracks. Example: Bill asks you whether your company can sponsor an upcoming event. You have to check with Betty in your office (who is notorious for not responding without prodding) before you can get back to Bill with an answer. You don’t want to forget to get back to Bill just because Betty can’t keep her shit straight.
  • Your brain has exceeded the bandwidth of what it can handle for the day and you need an email to come back tomorrow, or Friday. Example: You are prepping for quarterly TPS reports and 3 non-urgent emails come in that require responses in the next few days. You will be done with TPS reports today so you don’t want to even look at these requests until tomorrow.

Boomerang works right from your inbox. You can select an email to return to your inbox if you have not received a response from the recipient within a set number of days. Also, you can ask Boomerang to take emails out of your inbox until you have the capacity to deal with them (tomorrow, later tonight, etc.).

Only allow yourself 4 folders

My productivity crush, Gina Trapani from Lifehacker, suggests that many of us fall in the trap of overcomplicating our Simplify your email foldersfiling system and requiring too much thought in to where something should go. She advocates for a 3 folder system–archive, follow up, hold. Many of you will still have the DMZ folder too, but your goal will be to eliminate that folder as well.

  • Archive folder– Where everything will go that you don’t want to delete or need to actively act on. Remember, this is fully searchable.
  • Follow up folder– Required for any email in your inbox that requires more than a quick response. You should tackle this folder daily; otherwise, it will become your new inbox with a different name.
  • Hold folder– This folder can be your Boomerang folder. You’re waiting for someone to respond, waiting to make sure you get the $2,000 worth of Moleskines that you just ordered, and anything else that does not require your direct action.

Archive folder will not need to be touched. The follow up folder should be emptied every 24 hours. The hold folder should be reviewed and cleaned weekly.

Ensure your mobile email syncs with your web-based email

To save you from ever having to converse with someone on the train, or when you’re waiting at the bar looking like you have no friends, you’re going to need a quick way to look important and staring at your phone is the #1 way. These are the perfect times to do quick inbox zero admin–answer inbox emails that only require a few sentences, file others in hold or follow up, archive messages. You want to have your folders and actions on your mobile sync with your webmail (and vice versa) for a seamless and habit-forming system. Typically, you will want to choose IMAP over POP3 with your email server to ensure the 2-way sync.

If you do inbox zero, what are your favorite hacks?

If you’re a productivity nerd like I am, you might also enjoy our ebook on the top 10 tools to stay relevant with your network. It’s pretty money.