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How To (Almost) Achieve Inbox Zero

A world where your inbox is organized and not overflowing with unread messages is possible. Here’s how to get there.

How To (Almost) Achieve Inbox Zero
[Photo: Flickr user G M]

I don’t want to brag, but my email inbox is one of my most complimented possessions.

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It baffles me when people regularly say things like, “It got lost in my inbox,” or “I have 839 unread emails.” How do you survive? How can you be productive with that kind of virtual baggage hanging over your head all day? That said, I know things can get out of hand and there are people in the world who receive far more emails than me. But with a combination of time-saving and simple labeling tactics, you too can have an email inbox that’s the envy of all your frazzled friends.

1. Get Gmail.

It was Angela from the appropriately short-lived Bravo show Gallery Girls who once declared that she would only date someone who had an iPhone and a Gmail account. I’m not saying I agree with her because that girl was a lunatic, but Gmail is king for a reason. If you’re still slumming it on Optimum Online or Hotmail, I can’t help you. Get a gmail address, it’s well worth it.

2. Enjoy your new automatic filter.

Once you’ve just switched to a Gmail account per my advice, you’ll notice that Gmail automatically categorizes your email into three tabs: Primary, Social, and Promotions. This will instantaneously make your life better. (Unless you’re an email marketer, in which case it makes your life a little bit harder.)


This beautiful Gmail development automatically separates out any emails from Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, GoodReads, and the like into your Social tab, and anything related to your online shopping habit (speaking for myself now) into Promotions. Boom, automatic improvement.

3. Labels, labels, labels.

Here’s a little look into my soul, also known as my email labels. It turns out this list is a pretty accurate representation of my priorities, each job and project with a different label. This is actually a new account for me, but in college I had label groupings as well—so inside of “My Projects,” for example, there would be a whole list of specific projects.


This way, my inbox is cleared of everything except items that are in process or still require an action or response. Anything I may need for reference later, but am currently done with goes straight into the archives, and anything else goes straight to Trash. At any given time I have less than 50 emails in my inbox, and it’s beautiful.

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4. Filter your incoming messages.

Open an email from someone who you communicate with often. Hit “More,” “Filter Messages Like These,” “Create Filter With This Search,” “Apply the label…” Don’t forget to “also apply filter to matching conversations.” Now whenever that particular person sends you an email, it will automatically be marked with your label of choice. You can create filters based on other characteristics as well, but sender tends to be the simplest. At this point I receive very few emails that aren’t automatically labeled.

5. Delete like you’re on hoarders.

I’m warning you because I definitely do this: Don’t get too archive-happy. I know it feels nice to use all these pretty labels you’ve set up for yourself, but most of the time when you’re finished with something, you can just trash it.

6. Designate specific time for email.

This is a time-saving tip I got from the amazing Kate White. Even though I know how difficult it can be, don’t try to respond to emails constantly. Instead of wasting time every five minutes reading emails when you don’t actually have time to respond, set aside time in 15- (or more) minute intervals to read, delete, label and archive, or respond and take action to your incoming emails. By doing this, you’ll ensure that you only handle each email you receive once. You see it, read it, take whatever action is necessary, and move on to the next. Otherwise, you end up wasting time re-reading emails and also run the risk of missing something when you look at it on the go and think, “Oh yeah, I’ll get to that later.”

7. Don’t respond to email on your phone.

This one is straight from another email pro, Carly Heitlinger, also known as the College Prepster. “99.9% of the time, a response can wait,” she writes. “Typos always happen from phone and it’s too easy to misread something, not check my calendar properly and send out wrong information, or forget to reply to the whole thread.” Yes, yes, a million times yes.

Any email beautification tips that I missed? Let me know, I’m always collecting new ones!

This article originally appeared in Levo and is reprinted with permission.

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