Inbox (7,237). That's what my Gmail used to looked like for so long. In my defense, I thought that's what inboxes are supposed to look like (who organizes emails anyway, right?).

It was only when I found out about the Inbox Zero method that I realized how much an empty inbox (or, at least, near empty) matters. Incoming emails, after all, translate to incoming mental loads.

So, what the heck is the Inbox Zero approach? What's the importance of an organized inbox? Also, is it true that you don't have to respond immediately to an email? (Guilty!)

Let's answer all of that and more, so you can start to freely think outside the inbox.

Visual Clutter is Mental Clutter: Why Inbox Zero Works

"May I have your attention, please?" This is the slogan of all your email notifications. They demand attention, whether you like it or not.

You may think, "Ah, if I ignore them, they won't affect me. Out of sight, out of mind." But the thing is, they're not out of sight.

They're hideous little, nasty bugs in your inbox, unnoticed and unbothered. Ignoring them wouldn't be beneficial either, considering a 2019 study found that display clutter impairs visual attention distribution.

In other words, your junk mail affects you more than you know. In other words, you should delete emails that aren't essential and keep your inbox organized!

How? Merlin Mann, the mann (pun intended) behind all of this, believes achieving Inbox Zero is the key, and thousands of people are rallying behind him.

This approach avoids a cluttered inbox, allowing you to stick to your important tasks and be more productive throughout the day.

Merlin Mann's Five Articles of Faith

To understand the Inbox Zero method, we need to understand the principles that guide it.  There are five pillars that support Inbox Zero.

Merlin Mann called them the Articles of Faith. This is what he's telling us.

  • Some messages are more equal than others

This is the most important aspect of maintaining Inbox Zero. Learn to accept that not all emails are created equal; some are more important than others.

  • Your time is priceless (and wildly limited)

"Time is a commodity," so they say. You can spend your entire working hours reading and replying to emails (but, let's be honest, would you want to?). By the time you clock out, you still won't see your inbox empty.

  • Less can be so much more

Why does it seem like everyone's to-do list includes winning the Nobel Prize in Literature with their emails? You can be concise without being rude. Personal emails might be exceptions, but when you email clients with a novel, you're not doing anyone a favor. When it comes to email communication, delivering the message is all that matters. So, don't let perfectionism get in the way of your success.

  • Lose the guilt

The idea that you always have to be accessible and reply to emails increases job tension, which may also affect your work performance. There's no such thing as "the perfect email," and your inaction shouldn't define your work ethic.

  • Lying to yourself doesn't empty an inbox

Sometimes, it starts with telling yourself that you don't have the resources and time to respond to every email you receive. It takes a lot to admit that you just don't know what to do with them. Once you get over that, following the Inbox Zero method becomes second nature.

The Five Commandments of the Inbox Zero Method

More rules, really? Well, no great thing has ever been built without some kind of order, right? Rules, arbitrary or not, are how we find order amidst the chaos, and I know, "chaotic" is an understatement for the multiple inboxes you have right now.

Don't worry. Mann suggests you only need five commandments to maintain Inbox Zero, and they're pretty easy to remember.


Deleting emails is not a sin. You just have to make sure which ones are important and which ones aren't. Yes, your newsletter subscriptions are probably in the "unnecessary emails" category.

Upon opening the email, determine if it needs your response or if it contains information you might need. If not, send it to the archive folder (or delete it!).


Do you have to reply to that email? Upon deciding that an email requires a response, determine next if you are the appropriate person to respond. If not, forward the email to the individual best fit to handle the concern.

Don't think of it as though you're passing work on to someone else. Effective delegation has been known to improve employee performance, so you might actually be doing everyone a favor.


Five minutes or less. That's the Goldilocks Zone for responding to emails. While we're trying to avoid emails taking up too much mental energy, there are, of course, emails that need your attention. If it takes five minutes or less to respond, do it immediately.

Sometimes, doing things without thinking too much about them may even put you in the mood to do work and get the ball rolling.


So, what about emails that need your undivided attention but require a more in-depth response? If it's not urgent, creating a special folder in your email client would be the best approach. Transfer the email to this folder and set it aside for now.

An hour before you clock out, check the folder and see which emails require your responses before finishing your workday.


If the email includes tasks you need to work on, make sure that you transfer them immediately to your work management tool or system. Respond to it by saying you're working on it (or when you'll work on it), then delete or archive the email.

Look, I Am Your Folder: How to Establish a Folder System That Works For You

Similar to almost everything in our lives, the Inbox Zero method will not work without some kind of organization. We've briefly tackled that in the section above, but it's time we dive deeper into creating a folder system.

Here's how to create email filters that work for you:

(Disclaimer: We are not responsible for any comments you might receive from your superiors if you use some of these titles as folder names. Kidding!)

To Be Continued (With Better Focus)

printed sticky notes glued on board

Don't rely on your brain too much. Stop thinking mental notes hold the same weight as Post-It notes. That's one of the most common pitfalls in effective time management strategies. So, instead of saying, "Alright. I'll reply to this later," do something that will make you reply to it later.

Create a "To Be Continued" folder for emails that require a response but would take more than five minutes.

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The Feedback Loop (of Doom, But Hopefully Not)

Some emails require information you don't have. If it needs input from your other team members, consider making a "Feedback Loop" folder. Keep emails here while waiting for your team's feedback. Check the folder every morning to see if some emails require follow-ups.

Inspiration Station

An overflowing inbox is simply not beneficial to your work life. However, I understand that some subscription emails can be helpful for inspiration, and inspiration is an integral part of professional and organizational growth.

So, before hitting the unsubscribe button, determine if the sender has been emailing you with valuable information for some time now.

Then, create an "Ideas" or "Inspiration Station" folder where you can gather these types of emails. This helps you stick to the Inbox Zero method without compromising informative and innovative newsletters.

Project: [Name]

Following the Inbox Zero approach can be as simple as creating (and renaming) a folder for specific projects. This is particularly important for freelancers or employees who work on multiple projects or with different clients simultaneously.

By transferring emails to their appropriate project folders, it becomes easier to keep track of previous communications and tasks (also a good way to avoid mixing them up!).

The Black Hole

Some emails aren't important, but they aren't necessarily unimportant either. If you find yourself on the fence about whether or not you should delete an email, archiving it would probably be the best course of action.

Doing so ensures you don't permanently lose a piece of information, but it also doesn't add to inbox clutter.

Additional Tips for Improving Email and Work Productivity

The core of the Inbox Zero method is to make you more productive at work. If you're following its principles but still find yourself struggling with a cluttered inbox, you might be doing it wrong.

So, allow me to impart a few more productivity and email management tips to maximize the value Inbox Zero adds to your life.

Work > Email

Your email is just a part of your work, not its entirety. On average, a user (or employee) will spend 149 minutes of his/her workday checking, reading, and replying to emails. That's actually a huge improvement from 2016's 256 minutes per day.

Still, those are two hours you could've spent on other important tasks. Bottom line? Your email might be causing you to procrastinate on the things you need to work on.

Accept that your inbox is where someone else's priorities exist. Yours are in front of you. Make sure that you've accomplished your priorities before checking your email.

Establish a Schedule

According to the Harvard Business Review, professionals check their emails around 15 times on a regular workday. Remember: Your email isn't an instant messaging app.

A good rule of thumb is to check your email twice a day only; once late in the morning (after you've produced real work), and once before leaving work (to make sure nothing falls through the cracks).

Keep in mind that merely checking your email messages is harmful. One study found that any form of interruption, including email notifications, will cause a change in an employee's work pattern.

Protect your productivity. Establish a schedule.

You Can Say No (Or Not Reply)

There have been numerous studies and journals highlighting the power of saying "no." Guess what? It also applies in the workplace. An email, in and of itself, already demands your attention. It shouldn't have a paralyzing grip on your time and energy either.

So, make it a habit to protect and control your resources. Frugality, after all, is one of the most common habits of successful people. Remember: You can say no.

But if you think a quick "no" will not suffice, you can try the following approaches:

  • "No, but.."

Let the sender know that you have other tasks you need to work on, but you'll let them know when you're available.

  • "Let me check my calendar."

If you need to quickly respond to the email but you're unsure if you can squeeze the task into your schedule, buy yourself some time. Tell the person that you'll check your calendar. Assess your priorities. Then, give them a conclusive "yes" or "no."

  • The Tradeoff

If you're stumped at so many other tasks but your superiors are asking you to prioritize something, leave the decision to them. Respond by saying, "Yes. What should I deprioritize?" This ensures you're not overwhelmed with all the things you must do at once.

  • Task Referral

You are valuable, and you might think that how you do certain things is more efficient. However, sometimes people just want to get the job done, regardless of who does it. If the task is something you can't squeeze into your schedule, just say, "No, but X might be interested."

Avoid the Dance

The Inbox Zero method helps by filtering messages and sorting them into folders to keep your email organized. But sometimes, the fault is in our responses. We unknowingly cause some of these messages to keep coming. The antidote to this? Assertiveness and decision-making skills.

Instead of asking, "2 PM or 3 PM, what do you think?," cut down on the back-and-forth by saying "2 PM." Instead of asking, "Does this make sense?," avoid the dance by saying, "Let me know if you want to clarify anything."

Don't worry. You're not being rude or unhelpful. In fact,  assertive communication in the office results in more fruitful collaborations between colleagues and superiors. So, avoiding the dance can actually be beneficial to your organization.

Develop Accountability

Answering emails, attending meetings, writing reports, and analyzing data. There's just so much you have to do in a single day that it's almost a miracle you stay productive. But if it's getting harder for you to keep track of all the things you need to do, practicing personal accountability might help.

Set your goals (short-term and long-term), develop the appropriate habits, and evaluate your results. Determine the areas you need to work on and keep striving for success. In a matter of months, you'll see your life transform into what you really want it to be.

Not yet ready to be your own coach? We got you. Our accountability app will provide you with a professional human coach who'll help you hit your targets through feedback and positive psychology. You can try it out for free to see if it works for you!

Tools and Apps for Email Management

The Inbox Zero method has been around for almost two decades. As our technology progresses, more and more programmers and innovators have realized the value of keeping inboxes clean.

Because of that, we now have at our disposal dozens of productivity apps and email management tools that allow us to achieve Inbox Zero. Below are some of your best options.


One of the best tools for Gmail integration. Hiver is an excellent choice for office communication as it allows coworkers to access a shared inbox. This email management app is within the Gmail dashboard, so you don't have to download or install a new email client.


If you just don't want to receive emails for a couple of hours while you focus on an important task, Boomerang is an indispensable tool. It pauses your notifications, pop-ups, and incoming emails. Just don't forget to unpause this Chrome extension once you're ready to tackle the load of messages.


Did you receive an email that isn't spam but not something you want in your inbox either? That's called "graymail." Newsletters, purchase notifications, and forgotten mailing lists fall under this category. ManyMe filters these messages and sends only the important emails to your inbox (based on your preferences). ManyMe works great with Outlook and Apple Mail, too.


AI is everywhere these days, and wouldn't you know it, an email management app has utilized this technology already. SaneBox sorts your emails and organizes them into folders based on their content.

Microsoft Outlook

If your organization uses the Microsoft 365 suite, Outlook is an excellent option. Each user gets 50 GB of storage, spam protection, a calendar management kit, and more. Microsoft Outlook also uses the Copilot AI, capable of classifying priority emails, summarizing messages, and even drafting quick replies.

Food for Thought

  • How long do you spend writing a reply to an email? How does it affect your productivity?
  • How many unread emails are in your inbox now?
  • How many times have you responded to an email outside of your working hours? How did it affect your day?
  • What kind of system is in place that lets you organize your inbox? Or is there none at all?


What is the Inbox Zero method?

The Inbox Zero method is an email management strategy to keep your inbox clean, thereby keeping your mind clean and free of clutter as well. It empowers you to delete, sort, and respond to incoming emails based on their importance.

What does you've reached Inbox Zero mean?

Achieving Inbox Zero means you've employed an email system that works for you. Inbox Zero does not aim to get your inbox to absolute zero. Instead, it aims to reduce the time you spend checking and replying to emails, time you could otherwise spend on more important things.

What are the benefits of Inbox Zero?

For starters, achieving Inbox Zero makes you more productive at work since you can focus your attention on real tasks. It also improves your communication skills with your colleagues or superiors since it allows you to stick to the essentials when responding.

How do I get my Gmail inbox to zero?

It starts with having the discipline to sort every incoming message. You only need three categories; important, unimportant, and unwanted. Important messages are kept, unimportant messages are archived, and unwanted messages are deleted (be sure to unsubscribe to these websites as well).

You may also try email management tools and apps that integrate into your email client to maintain Inbox Zero.

What is the 3-21-0 method?

The 3-21-0 method is another effective strategy to keep your inbox organized while ensuring you don't spend too much of your work hours just answering emails. This method suggests you should only check your email 3 times per day, for 21 minutes per session, to get your inbox to 0.


woman in gray shirt sitting on bench in front of MacBook

"Can anybody be happy if they aren't free?" You can't keep living in the prison that is your inbox. If you truly want to be happy (and productive) at work, you've got to develop certain habits that drive you in the right direction.

One of those is organizing your email to achieve Inbox Zero. The good news is that following this method's principles is so easy. Anyone can do it!

Nonetheless, if you find yourself struggling with email organization and staying productive at work, you might need more hands on deck. Our accountability app will ensure you see what you're truly capable of. Start discovering the best version of yourself with our free trial!

Innovative strategies, peace of mind, efficiency, and personal development are just around the corner. You just have to think outside the (in)box once in a while.