Why I Put My Inbox on a Diet

Zero Inbox

{Look out, this one’s bound to be a bit lengthy…}

Let’s just dive in. I keep my inbox empty of email I’ve already read. The end.


I’ve changed the way I use my email inbox. It’s no longer filled with hundreds of emails that I’ve already read and dealt with and fistfuls that still need some sort of action. I’ve reverted back to my original inbox ways. I keep it empty. And it is so, so glorious.

When I was in college and I first got email (yes, I’m that old) I would log in, read all of my messages, respond, delete, or file them accordingly. It was a great system. I lived like that for a couple years. Then I started working in an open concept office and I saw that I was the only weirdo who sorted and deleted emails. My co-workers were keeping every single one sitting there in their inbox, so I started to do the same. I guess digital space was “free”so why not hold onto them? Plus it made me feel important to sit down and see all those notes in my mailbox. Life was good. I fit in. And I continued that way for over a decade. A DECADE.

Then a couple of years ago I heard about this thing minimalists were doing with their inboxes. They were keeping them empty. Clearly they were crazy. And after my own heart. So I slowly began the process of zeroing my inbox. Again. Ok, it wasn’t really that slow. I took some shortcuts to get myself 80% of the way there. Here’s what my current system looks like:

  1. First I set up filters in my Mac Mail to sort incoming messages into different folders that don’t need to be read right away, such as
    • Bills to Pay
    • Social Media
    • Real Estate
    • Personal
  2. Next I made a few more folders that were just going to make my emailing life easier
    • Happy Mail – where I move emails to that make me feel good to read them, that way when I’m having a bit of a rough day I can flip through them to change my mood and increase my confidence
    • Print Orders – which is actually a set of nested folders where I sort new orders coming in:
      • New Orders
      • Need Prints
      • To Be Shipped
      • Filled Orders
      • Customer Questions
    • Action – email that needs me to do something
    • Hold – waiting for someone else to do something
    • Archive – dealt with email that I still want to keep
  3. Now when email comes in it’s either:
    • automagically sorted into folders I can deal with later at a more appropriate time
    • left in my inbox where I read it and immediately:
      • respond if necessary then sort into one of the other folders
      • delete it if it’s not needed
      • or sort it into either Action, Hold, or Archive

Well that’s all fine and good you say, but what about in the beginning? When I had hundreds if not thousands of emails sitting right there in my inbox, what happened to those? I made another folder called “To Deal With” and I put everything that was older than a month. Then, anything that was left I sorted out into their appropriate folders. I’m pretty sure it took less than 30 minutes. Then when I had a few minutes I’d the same thing with a few of the messages in my To Deal With folder, and when there was nothing less I deleted it.

And that leaves my inbox wonderfully empty. It’s a small thing, but it lets me relax a bit, knowing that everything has been dealt with and anything that hasn’t I can see at a quick glance in my Action folder so nothing gets buried. It’s like having empty space in a room, it’s a relief and it gives my brain a break.

How do you manage your inbox? Do you keep it filled to the rafters or completely empty? Do you have any tips to share? Are there other parts of your digital life that you’re creating space?

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