10 Ways I Manage Email and Achieve Inbox Zero

inbox zeroReflecting back on last week, I noticed a huge increase in the volume of emails I’ve been receiving. The project I’m working on is crazy complicated and there are many work streams with a lot of team members. It was inevitable that this was going to drive a higher volume of email.

I hate having anything in my inbox and am proud of keeping to inbox zero on a daily basis. It’s a little more challenging than in the past but my system is holding up.

Here are 10 of the main things I do to keep inbox zero:

#1 Set time in the calendar to clear the inbox at the end of the day

This is critical as whatever happens during the day you have that time carved out to deal with the inbox. I find this takes out the worry of email building up – I know I have time to deal with it later.

#2 Don’t dip in and out of the inbox all day

You have to focus on the work you are doing and getting distracted by new emails or having a quick scan every few minutes is not going to make you productive. Turn off notifications – if you are using Outlook that notification that pops up bottom right of the screen is a destroyer of focus and productivity. Turn it off.

Also switch the phone to do not disturb and if you wear a smart watch, take it off or silence the notifications.

#3 Have a quick review of the inbox after finishing a task (not during!)

If you are using the Pomodoro technique then the 5 minute breaks are ideal for this. I’m not trying to clear emails but just checking for anything that is genuinely time critical or important.

That might be something I have to react to like a request from my boss or an email I have been waiting for that will allow me to move forward with what I am working on.

#4 Inbox review

I make quick decisions and power through the inbox

When I clear email at the end of the day I run through each one and make a decision on how to handle:

  • If there’s an action I need to perform then I add to my task list and flag, categorize and file the email (more on categories in point 6). I don’t do the action immediately even if it’s quick – my focus is clearing the inbox and getting my actions into my task manager. I don’t want to get sidetracked by lots of small quick actions and would rather see the full picture in my task list and prioritize later.
  • If it’s something that I think I will need for reference but no action for me then I categorize and file.
  • Anything else is deleted

I make quick decisions and power through the inbox. It wasn’t always this way but after practice and with experience it becomes second nature. Check out my email flowchart.

#5 Use no more than 5 folders

I used to have folders for everything and then subfolders under that. I’d spend so much time trying to figure out which folder something should go in as they usually would be relevant to two or more folders. For example, something impacting month end accounts might also be a customer issue. I’d want to be able to find it in both places.

So I tried to make the decision making easier by having one main “reference” folder and then another 4 for very specific reasons (a project, sales reports, personal, expense receipts). Having everything in one folder presents its own challenge – how do you find stuff…..see the next 2 items.

#6 Use categories

I categorize every email. And some will have multiple categories. I use Outlook at work and it’s easy to set up a bunch of color coded categories. Then I can sort my reference folder by category and find things a bit more easily.

The advantage of using multiple categories on an email is that the email appears under each category in the list. If I categorize something as month end and a customer issue then it doesn’t matter if I scroll through either of them – the email will be there.

Before I would start with one folder and get frustrated about why I couldn’t find it before remembering that I filed it somewhere else.

#7 Get good at using search

I’ve started using search in Outlook to find emails. I can just type a few search terms in the box like the name of who would have sent me the email and something I know would be in the email or the files attached and I can then quickly scroll through the results.

The category is useful if there are a lot of results as makes it a bit easier to pinpoint.

#8 Use rules to automate filing of emails

I admit I don’t use this enough and should think some more about how I can use the system to help me. I have rules set up for standard reports and Outlook categorizes and files them for me. I never see the email in my inbox and I can just go look at the report when I need to.

#9 If you’re cc’d on an email don’t waste time with it

My rule is that if I’m on cc then there should be no action for me. It probably hold true 90% of the time but when it doesn’t, well tough, you should have addressed the email to me directly.

#10 Be consistent

If I stick to my own rules everything works. When I start to deviate the inbox builds up and starts to look a bit overwhelming.

The system works right now. It’s not complicated but it takes some effort to make it work.

Are you doing anything different to me that makes it easier to keep email under control? I would love to hear from you if you are.

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About Paul Metcalfe

Hello, I'm Paul, the founder of Workweek Zen. When I'm not searching the internet for the best productivity techniques, I'm implementing them. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter


  1. Niraj on February 12, 2016 at 1:36 pm

    Excellent article, Paul. You make some sharp points here. Using filters and rules to organise inbox can indeed be very effective. Thanks, Niraj (Founder at hiverhq.com)

  2. Jim on February 25, 2016 at 4:18 pm

    One additional step – if the email is junk, use the “unsubscribe” feature if available to eliminate future junk.

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