Inbox Zero: Secrets From An Email Veteran

I often see tweets from people bemoaning the fact that they’ve got (from their point of view) a huge number of emails clogging their inbox. I used to work for a big software company herding a bunch of cats, and those cats just loved to send me email. So I had to come up with ways to manage all the mail. I’ve distilled all the classes, tips, hints and tricks right here for you at no charge. Hop on it, young Jedi Warriors.

On the first day of every month, take these five steps:

emailStep 1:  Sort Your Inbox By “From”

This allows you to quickly identify newsletters, blogs, lists and other high-volume content that you can either delete or move to an appropriate folder.  It also shows you who the biggest offenders are (Mom?  Brother Bob?  That woman in Argentina that you’ve been seeing?) and lets you think about suggesting they get a life.  You could also set up some filters to put her mail directly in the trash if you’re the bashful sort.

Step 2:  Sort Your Inbox Alphabetically

This will also reveal huge chunks that can be handled in one swell foop — all from the same sender, the same list, the same topic.  It often reveals that you get scads of email from a list you no longer read, a person you just don’t care about, or a source that is no longer relevant.  Again, you could use filters or “mail rules” here to make life better.

Step 3:  Sort Your Inbox by “Attachments”

This will reveal any messages that were sent to you with documents, spreadsheets, photos or other important stuff that you might want to make sure you keep.  It will also show you all those spam messages you don’t ever want to click on, so be careful.

Step 4: Search The Inbox Folder

Search this folder now, for key words that matter — like the name of current clients, current projects, your hired assassin’s code name or the password for your Swiss bank account.  It’s worth it to make sure you’re not missing anything really important.

Step 5: Make A New Folder

Create a new folder.  Give it the name of the previous month.  Move everything that’s left into that folder.


Viola.  Inbox empty.



  1. Dave Ferguson says

    There’s another choice I recommend especially to the kind of people who update Facebook or Twitter about their inbox-zero attempts: Inbox roulette.

    1. Select everything in your inbox.
    2. Delete it.

    If you happen to delete something you should have, you’ll hear about it soon enough. In my experience, the more stuff you had to begin with, the less important the average item was.

  2. David Glow says

    Two years ago, we had to switch over to a new mail server, and all our legacy emails were archived “just in case”.

    Not one of them has needed to be dug up.

    Lesson learned. Toss it- the productivity gains in clearing all the clutter significantly outweighs the potential benefit of hoarding (and, if you have a large IT dept- it’s archived somewhere).

    Disclaimer: does not apply universally to smaller consulting organizations that may need to revisit agreements/billings (but email is not the best place for this documentation).