Inbox Zero 2011 – Taming Your Email Inbox

Inbox Zero:

The concept of Inbox Zero – getting your email inbox emptied daily or at least regularly, has been promoted since 2006 by Merlin Mann on his website

Many people have praised it in the years since then, while others have called Inbox Zero unrealistic.  But it has recently become a lot easier, at least for those of us using Outlook or Gmail to handle our email.   I’ll show you how in a minute, but first let me clarify a few points about Inbox Zero.

The concept of Inbox Zero is valid.  That is not to say that you should answer every email you get daily, but every email should be processed.   Processing means that you do one of 4 things with each email.   These 4 things are:

  • Delete it.
  • Archive it.
  • Defer it (set a reminder to bring it back to your attention at the appropriate time, and meanwhile temporarily archive it).
  • Act on it (Answer, delegate or take some other appropriate action, then Delete it or Archive it).

If you could rapidly do one of the above 4 actions with every new email, your email inbox would no longer be a monster.  You would no longer have attention stuck on what time-bombs are lurking in your inbox that you may have forgotten to handle in time.  You would achieve Inbox Zero, and have time left over to go save the princess.

Delete requires little explanation.  If you will not need it later, just delete it.  A lot of email can be automatically deleted with rules/filters, and there is a lot of data available on how to set these up.  I’ll not cover this here. Once deleted, it is out of your inbox and you are closer to Inbox Zero.

Archive requires a bit more action and planning.   But setting up folders in Outlook is easy, and there are tricks and shortcuts on archiving effectively, which I’ll not go into now.  In Gmail, labels are easy to set up and very easy and fast to use for archiving. Once archived, it is out of your inbox.

Defer is used if you need to do something with this email, but at a later time.   It could be a utility bill, and you pay your bills on Saturday mornings, not when you get the email.  Or a travel itinerary which you will need in 3 weeks, but not now.  Or an email from a friend, which you want to answer in the evening, not while you are at work.  Once you have set the reminder and temporarily archived the email, it has been Deferred and is out of your inbox.

Act can be more than just replying to the email, or sending it on to someone else.  It could include originating new emails to others on the subject, making phone calls or texting others, or doing whatever you want to do based on the email you received.  It could be big or small, but is something more than just Deleting, Archiving or Deferring the email.  Once Acted upon, either archive or delete the email, so it is out of your inbox.

Take fast action to eliminate every email in your inbox that can be Deleted, Archived or Deferred with a reminder, or which can be Acted upon rapidly.  You will be very close to Inbox Zero at this point.

Deleting, Archiving and Deferring can be done the first time you open an email.  This gets it out of your inbox fast.   Emails that require Action can be handled instantly if it is a quick Action, like a fast reply.   Then they too are out of your inbox.   If the email requires a long answer or other action that will take more than 2-3 minutes, and is not extremely urgent, skip it for now and move to the next one.  Very soon you will have just a few emails left in your inbox – the ones that require Action taking more than 2-3 minutes.

Since you have eliminated or set reminders for everything else, you can concentrate fully on handling these few remaining emails, and on getting on with your day.   No worries or distractions about missed or forgotten emails lurking in your inbox or your follow-up folder.

Once you finish Acting on these few remaining emails, you have Inbox Zero.   OK yes, more emails may arrive while you are doing this, but if you have handled everything that was in your inbox when you started, you can claim Inbox Zero boasting rights for the day.

OK, so that is the ideal scene – the way it should be.   But there is a slight problem on ‘Deferring with a reminder’.

Efficiently setting reminders has always been a tough part of handling email. The usual handlings for this have traditionally included:

  • Leaving the email in your inbox.
  • Archiving the email after setting up a Calendar event to remind you.
  • Filing the email in a separate follow-up folder.
  • Handling your email through advanced software systems like ACT, GoldMine, TimeMaker and others.

There are caveats or disadvantages to each of these.

Leaving the emails in your inbox
clutters your inbox, forces you to repeatedly look over all the emails in your inbox to ensure you don’t forget to take action in time, and risks forgetting/overlooking something vital until after it is too late.

Setting up calendar events
can be cumbersome and time-consuming.   It is appropriate for some things, but way too much work for most emails.

Filing emails in a follow-up folder
gets the emails out of your inbox, which is good.   But you still have to remember to frequently look through all the emails in your follow-up folder to ensure nothing is missed.

ACT, GoldMine, TimeMaker
and many other software packages are great, but they have a much longer learning curve than ordinary email and generally cost much more than Outlook or Gmail.   I used TimeMaker for several years, and absolutely loved it’s system for setting reminders, even though it required more learning time than most are willing to put into their email software.   I eventually switched to Gmail – the advantages to Gmail were just too great to not make the switch.

OK, so for those of us who love Gmail or Outlook and want something efficient without investing a lot of learning time or money, what to do?

Inbox Zero with Boomerang

Use Boomerang from

It is available for Outlook and for Gmail.   And it makes it incredibly easy to Defer with a reminder, and it does it by temporarily archiving the email so it is out of your inbox. The entire email is temporarily archived and is then brought back into your inbox at the date & time you specify.   This makes it possible to very efficiently and rapidly apply

  • Delete
  • Archive
  • Defer with a reminder
  • Act and Delete/Archive

to your entire inbox, each time you check your inbox.

It also allows you to easily set reminders on outgoing emails, so that you get a reminder in your inbox if your email is not replied to by the date & time you specify.

Boomerang makes Inbox Zero possible in an easy and efficient manner if you use Outlook or Gmail.    Go to

If you don’t use Outlook or Gmail, you may want to consider making the switch.

Go tame that inbox!


Here is a video showing Boomerang for Gmail.

Merlin Mann used Delete/Delegate/Respond/Defer/Do as shorthand for the actions you can take on an email to implement Inbox Zero.  I have combined Delegate/Respond/Do into simply Act for simplicity, as these are all actions involving more than just the few keystrokes or clicks it takes to Delete, Archive or Defer.


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