Inbox Zero: A Daily Habit to Empty Your Email Inbox

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Email is an important part of life.

Whether you use it stay in touch with friends or as part of your job, using email is a routine that most people do on a daily basis.

Unfortunately email is often a “time suck” that takes you away from working on important projects and living life. 

Even worse—it often causes a lots of stress.  When your inbox is full of unanswered messages, it’s not easy to relax and focus on the things that truly matter.

Now, if you look closely at many successful people, you’d see they’re not buried under thousands of messages.  Their secret?  They practice the habit called “Inbox Zero,” where they completely empty their inbox every single day.

So, for a 30 Day Habit Challenge (30DHC), I set the goal to develop the daily inbox zero habit. 

In this post, we’ll talk about this productivity habit and a few strategies you can use to do it on a consistent basis.

30DHC for December – Practice Daily Inbox Zero

Here’s an overview of this habit challenge:

#1 – Reason Why

Like many entrepreneurs, I get a lot of email—sometimes over 100 messages a day.  Yes, this number doesn’t compare to the volume that some people receive, but it still requires a few hours of my time.

Now I love hearing from people, but every hour that’s spent on email means an hour that I lose on important business tasks—like writing and marketing.  (Yes, I know that talking to readers is marketing, but let’s not split hairs here.)

For a while, I’ve been tempted to do what some people do and declare “email bankruptcy” where I’d delete all my messages and declare that I no longer answer messages.  However, I think this is a dangerous strategy.  When people take time to write you, it’s only fair to reply back.

Ultimately, I decided on a smarter strategy—develop a simple habit for processing email in the most efficient manner, which led me to the inbox zero concept.

Inbox zero is just one way to systematize your day. If you want more tips on how to become more productive at work, watch this video:

#2 – Description

At first, my goal was to inbox zero for every day in December—a total of 31 days.

While this goal was “doable,” I knew there were certain days where I wouldn’t be in front of a computer (like Christmas, occasional weekend activities and a full-day trip to New York City.) So, I decided that this habit would be successful if I completed it 25 out of 31 days.

During this time, I added some mini-habits that helped eliminate the stress and inefficiency when dealing with email:

  1. Setting up email forwarding scripts that funnel all my messages into one inbox.
  2. Checking email once (maybe twice) a day.
  3. Disabling the email app on my iPhone.
  4. Stop using my inbox as a to-do list.  I either scheduled the required action or did it right away.
  5. Using the “two-minute rule” for each message. If I could do it during this time, I would take immediate action.
  6. “Single-handling” each message.  When I open a message, I take action.  Either I do what’s needed or I record the action in a to-do list.  This means, no saving the message in the inbox for future reference.
  7. Unsubscribing from pointless emails instead of just deleting them.
  8. Creating template responses for common questions that I receive, which are then personalized for each person.
  9. Saying no to projects/requests that aren’t 100% aligned with what I’m currently doing.

This is just a small sample of all the actions that I took to build this habit.  Once I started doing it daily, I discovered a number of fun hacks that helped me stem the tide of email.

#3 – Obstacles

The biggest obstacle occurred during my days off.  In the past, I didn’t work on Saturdays, Sundays and half of Friday. 

Since the inbox zero habit was connected to my business that meant “working” on days off—even if it only took 30 minutes of my time. Mentally, this was a challenge because I never felt truly relaxed.

So, eventually I decided that the easiest way to get it done was to process email first thing in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays, which basically replaced the writing habit that I do during the rest of the week.

#4 – Results

I achieved inbox zero on 28 out of 31 days—three more than I anticipated.

The cool part?

This habit led to three positive benefits…

First, my total time spent on email dramatically reduced.  Whereas it once took me 1- to 2-hours a day to process every message, now I can do it in 30- to 40-minutes per day.  This means I’ve gained an hour of productivity every single day.

Another benefit is my interactions with readers has dramatically improved. Inbox zero is a like another skill—once you’ve done it awhile you can make quick decisions and give each person the best possible piece of advice. 

Moreover, you get to respond to their request within 24 hours which helps build relationships.

Finally, I’ve broken the bad habit of being tethered to my phone.  No longer do I check my email when I’m out and about.  Now, the only time I open my inbox is when I’m in front of the computer—ready to process every single message.

#5 – Verdict

Keep it!

It’s great to achieve inbox zero on a daily basis.  You’re less stressed and feel more in control of your life.  Both of these benefits are important as you develop other positive habits.

The downside to this habit?  Responding to emails on your days off can be a grind.  So moving forward, I’ve decided to skip email for one day a week.

Final Thoughts on Inbox Zero

I’ve learned a lot about inbox zero in the last few months.  While I’ve developed a decent framework that’s halved my email time, I feel there’s still more to learn about this process.

That’s why I now have a simple goal: Find a way to turn email into a simple, stress-free habit that you don’t dread on a daily basis.

You can minimize the amount of time you spend on email by doing the following:

  1. Disable the email app on your mobile phone.
  2. Check email only when you’re ready to take action.
  3. Create template responses for common requests.
  4. Spend time learning an email program like Gmail where you can filter messages.
  5. Unsubscribe from pointless emails instead of just deleting them.
  6. Use the “two-minute rule” to process each message
  7. Stop using your inbox as a to-do list.

Just follow these seven rules for the next month and you’ll eliminate a lot of the time that’s spent on email.  Then you can use this extra time to focus on the important things in life.

If you want to learn more, you can check out my book, Daily Inbox Zero: 9 Proven Steps to Eliminate Email Overload.

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8 thoughts on “Inbox Zero: A Daily Habit to Empty Your Email Inbox”

  1. Hey SJ, I have probably 10,000 email messages in my inbox. In your book, maybe you could include a section about getting from 10k down to zero before you even attempt the day to day strategy?


  2. SJ,

    I think this is a really useful post. I like that you stopped using your smart phone in order to avoid unthinkingly wasting time on e-mails throughout the day. I never thought of that and might have to try it.

    Something that worked for me was improving my e-mail organization. It really helped by limiting the amount of e-mail I actually need to process. For all the blogs I follow I filter the e-mails into a folder that I can check at my convenience. I do this with a number of other e-mails into different folders. The non-critical e-mails all get placed directly into their individual folders and the amount of e-mails that are actually in front of me daily is now like 10% of what it used to be.

    It’s been really amazing.

    • Derek,

      Not using the smart phone to constantly check emails is one of the single biggest time savers out there. It is just too darn tempting to take a look when you hear that little beep, and subsequently too hard to hold back from looking if the email seems interesting.

      I highly recommend people removing email from their smartphone EVEN IF THEY DON”T CARE about inbox zero. The convenience it brings just does not equal the time and productivity it consumes.

      I like your methods of batching the emails a lot. I do something similar, and I agree: it works like a champ!

  3. SJ thanks a lot for this post! I have a nice system in place and I knew about all of this rules, so managing my mail is not a big deal for me.
    However, I’m guilty of compulsive mail checking. I waste the time on checking mail for the checking sake. So my biggest takeaway is: “Check email only when you’re ready to take action.”
    I think all other advice come down to this one…

    • Michal,

      It can be a tough one to overcome. Not exactly the same, but I am a compulsive stat checker, and I check things like amazon stats and google analytics a couple times a day. FAR FAR more than I should.

      These things are tough habits to break, but they turn the good things in communication and planning into time killers. It is worth it to work on improving here for sure!

  4. I have two answers for you. #1 use your Evernote id to forward from gmail. (Evernote ID should look something like this: yourname.123abc@ m.evernote. com.) Then click gmail “gear” , choose Forwarding and POP/IMAP and set the forwarding address.

    The second way is to use IFTTT (If this then that- a web and app based program that lets you specify any parameters between many sites and apps ) to automate and send from gmail to evernote. With this you can narrow your focus and send to specific folders.

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