Software, Development, and WordPress

My Day-To-Day: Inbox Zero

Periodically, I’ll get questions on how I manage certain parts of my day-to-day workflow, so I’ve been trying to answer each of these questions in My Day-to-Day. Since email is one of those things with which we’re all too familiar, I figured I’d share how I aim for inbox zero.

TL;DR: I believe that inbox zero is a myth – it’s a goal that’s a slippery slope – and it’s more about tools that help you manage the influx of email than it is trying to answer every email by an arbitrary time of day.

But that’s the long version. As always, there’s more to it than that.

Inbox Zero

One of the biggest things – especially for GTD-types – is treating email like an action item. Specifically, we view it as a task that needs to be completed where inbox zero is the goal of said task.

The thing is, I’ve grown to disagree with almost all of the conventional wisdom and/or advice when it comes to trying to reach inbox zero. Simply put, it’s an impossible goal.

1. Email is Communication

Email is communication and communication is two-way so just as soon as you send out an email, you’re inviting back responses which, in turn, invites email back into your inbox.

What happens if this happens during the block of time you’ve allotted to answer all of your email? You’re stuck on the slippery slope of trying to reach inbox zero.

2. Email Strategies May Work

This is not to say that strategies for minimizing email doesn’t work. For example, some say not to ask questions (this is a suggestion where applicable, not a rule, obviously).

Five Sentences

Five Sentences is a strategy for keeping email concise.

Others suggest using tools like Five Sentences which is great, but do you include the signature included in these strategies? Does this count against your sentence quota? What if they respond asking about the site?

Obviously, I’m being really facetious here.

Truth be told, I’m a fan of keeping emails as concise as possible, but the point that I want to make here is that whatever strategy you end up employing helps to mitigate – not contribute to – the problem of a cluttered inbox.

Think carefully how you’re structuring your email.

3. Don’t Bother with Signatures

For the most part, I’ve stopped signing my emails. You see my name in your inbox whenever you load your email client, and unless it’s an extraordinarily important email, I usually try to keep things casual.

Now, this isn’t to say that this is a hard-and-fast rule. There are times where signatures are key. For example, of a friend of mine recently completed a Kickstarter campaign and provided a link into his inbox. I know that he receives a lot of email so sharing this in the signature made sense as it helped get the word out.

Finally, if your email address includes the domain of your website, landing page, blog, or whatever product you’re selling, then I’d argue there’s no reason to link to your social networking services because people can find you at your site and your site should be linking them to said services.

Getting To Inbox Zero

So, with that said, there are a few things that I try to do every day that help me manage my inbox so that the number of emails that come in aren’t ignored, lost, or forgotten.

Here’s my basic strategy for managing my email:

  • I check and respond to all email as one of the first things in the morning
  • If the email is one that I can’t respond to right now, I’ll use Mailbox App to shift it to ‘Later Today’ or ‘Tomorrow’
  • If the email is one that requires no response, I archive it (I never delete email – I’m a hoarder :)).
  • I write any emails to people that I need to from the previous day.
  • I’ll normally repeat this process over lunch
  • I check and respond to all email as one of the last things I do at the end of the work day

With the exception of weekends, my goal is to respond to emails within 24 hours of when I receive them. Using the above strategy, I’ve got a pretty good track record.


Save for three, I unsubscribe to every single newsletter. Between blogs and Twitter, I’ll normally get all of the same information that newsletters provide. I do as much as I can to avoid redundancy.

After Hours

I generally don’t respond to emails after hours or on the weekends unless it’s from one of my partners, family members, or it’s something that’s absolutely critical (and critical is a term that’s relative so only you can really define it).


On my desktop, I use Gmail – I don’t use any email client because I don’t delete any email. Seriously, I’ve stuff dated back to before I was in college.

  • I don’t need the data filling up my hard drive
  • I think Gmail’s interface for searching is faster than any program I’ve found, which is important
  • This is a personal quirk, but I like being able to have the same experience with email regardless of who’s computer I may be using

On my phone, I use Mailbox App. I know a lot of people aren’t fans. Cool. I know a lot of people are fans. Cool. It’s always about the tool that works best for you.

Mailbox App

To that end, Mailbox App helps me prioritize my inbox while I’m away from my desk such that my emails will show up in my inbox when I need them. I rarely use the app to respond to email unless it’s critical, and use it primarily as an organizational tool.

This Won’t Work For You

As with everything else I’ve shared in this series, this may or may not work for you. But when people ask how I manage to my own things, I try to answer them here on the site.

If nothing else, I figure you guys will leave comments about the things that you do which I may end up using in my own day-to-day. Of course, maybe this will help you, too.

Either way, this is how I aim for what’s become known as inbox zero even if I don’t necessarily think it’s a particularly good goal :).


  1. Mike Schinkel

    Funny that you would write this after I spent a weekend trying to corral my email workflow after having been overwhelmed with email as I’ve ramped up to monitoring more WordPress blogs via RSS-to-email (like this one…)

    What I’m trying now is MailTags and Mail Act-On (Mac only) to tagged most email that I get from consistent sources and for anything I know from the source where I’ll file it I have an single keystroke pair that files appropriately based on the email’s tags.

    I’ve got four workflow folders like this:

    – MY TEAM: Any new emails from anyone on any of my teams. Manually file after reading.

    – TO READ: Any new emails that based on the source I want to read but I can put off until later. I file these automatically with a single keystroke pair (F2-2) that use Mail Act-On to look at my tags and file appropriately.

    – TO ACT ON: Any new emails from active clients, bills, etc. Either manually file or file automatically.

    – TO FOLLOW UP: Emails that I move there when I can’t act on immediately but for which a delay is okay. For example a promotion to buy something or an email from someone saying “Let’s get together sometime soon.” I also manually file these once I’ve taken action on them.

    So I just set this up, no idea if it I’ll still be using it 6 months from now but already feeling better about my email overload. We’ll see after 6 months…

    • Tom McFarlin

      I’m tempted to make a reminder for six months from now just to see how this is working for you ;).

      • Mike Schinkel

        Do it. Thus far it’s really helping. It’s currently my email review time by about 80%.

        • Tom McFarlin

          Alright, then – holding you to it. Added it to my ‘Things’ list :).

  2. Dave Clements

    I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said in this article over the past couple of weeks and I think I’m ready to respond now.

    While I agree that email is communication and that we shouldn’t treat email as action items, another part of me disagrees. Conversations have a time and a place, and when I’m done conversing on a particular subject, I archive that email, just as I would leave a friend if our conversation had halted. That’s not to say that it’s the end of the conversation, but for now, it’s a closed matter. When that item needs to be discussed again, it’s brought back into my inbox, because someone else has interjected on the subject, just as friends would pick back up on a conversation when they next met up. I don’t keep my friends hanging around, just in case they have something to say on a conversation we had recently.

    Treating emails as action-items is a crude thing to do, especially when you consider that email is communication between you and your friends and/or clients, but it’s the way we really work I think. When you see a client or friend, you mentally go over recent things you’ve discussed, and try to address everything, taking away an action list. Email is more a task-based form of communication than socialising, where you might discuss what’s going on in the world and generally muse life, interests and current affairs, which typically doesn’t happen in email.

    You make some good points though, and I wish I didn’t get so anxious with more than 5 emails in my inbox… I’m getting better… slowly…

    • Tom McFarlin

      There’s not much I can add to your comment because I don’t really disagree with it. In the beginning of the article, I mention:

      Specifically, we view it as a task that needs to be completed where inbox zero is the goal of said task. The thing is, I’ve grown to disagree with almost all of the conventional wisdom and/or advice when it comes to trying to reach inbox zero.

      So what you’ve mentioned about email is spot on – it’s a conversation – and that’s precisely why I don’t think that aiming for inbox zero is always a good thing (and why tools such as Mailbox App help us to put it in the proper perspective).

      If our goal is to clear out our inbox while we simultaneously view email as somewhat of a two way street, then we have an idea that’s at odds with itself: We’re looking to end something that is defined by an exchange of communication.

      But anyway, like I said, I think we agree more than anything and I don’t want this comment to add to your five emails in your inbox ;), so I’ll shut it down here.

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