Gmail Inbox Zero

March 16, 2022

Email Etc

I had one major goal yesterday: Inbox Zero for my personal account.

I am a huge believer of regular email cleanouts as part of my weekly review process. I do not like it when tasks and things get stuck in there. But sometimes life gets messy, and this past month definitely could carry that descriptor.

Yesterday I decided that any and all free time would be dedicated to catching up. I worked on my inbox during lunch in lieu of my usual walk. I worked on my inbox at the end of the work day. I worked on my inbox while the kids created a couch obstacle course in the evening (they are still screen free this month even if I’m not!).

And you guys! I did it! So excited to see the graphic above though also slightly disturbed. Does gmail know my gender, skin color, hair color? If so, is there any reason why they also think I have the shoulders of a linebacker? Does anyone lie down in a jungle to read after they are done cleaning out an inbox?

Google mysteries aside, I feel happy. I do not plan to keep it clear on a daily basis (too much distracting pruning) but will go back to weekly cleanouts. By the way, I do not use folders. Every message that I’m done with (either responded to, captured in the appropriate place, completed) just gets dumped into the generic Archives. Gmail is searchable enough that this has always been fine and I don’t think I’d be able to get to this lovely empty spot without this rather crude (but effective) method.

(I also succumbed and paid the $20/year for 100GB storage. Because I decided that deleting emails on a regular basis to remain under their threshold was probably not worth $20 of my time.)

Work email

My work email isn’t bad. I have been more consistent with this (mostly because I know that if I don’t, important things will fall through the cracks). I think I have ~30 messages in there but my “Waiting On / Follow Up” folder does need some serious attention. I don’t see it happening this week (Match Day on Friday – I’m eagerly awaiting our results!!) but maybe the next.

(On that note, Microsoft needs to figure out what gmail does to make the search so good, because the Outlook search is terrible in comparison.)


I wanted to see if WordPress had some fancy poll-embedding widget but nothing appeared with a cursory glance, so I will conduct an informal poll in today’s comments. Are you Inbox Zero daily, Inbox Zero weekly, Inbox Zero sometimes, or Inbox Infinite (ie, you don’t worry about clearing it)? I can see value in all approaches honestly but I feel so much better when mine is on EMPTY!


  • Reply Allison Cunningham March 16, 2022 at 5:58 am

    Inbox weekly, I also archive in gmail.

  • Reply Keren March 16, 2022 at 6:11 am

    Definitely Inbox Infinite.
    I don’t see value in sorting email when you can search.
    However I agree with you that on outlook search works less well, especially in IOS version. We recently switched computers at work from windows to macbook and outlook on IOS is just not good….

  • Reply Mrs. Candid March 16, 2022 at 6:13 am

    Inbox infinite

  • Reply Coree March 16, 2022 at 6:37 am

    For work, I’m an Inbox Weekly devotee. My work emails get sorted all the time, with substantive things I need to deal with remaining in my inbox (5-10 messages) and admin things or FYIs in an “Admin Powerhour” folder which I deal with all at once, usually once a day whilst commuting, in the airport, or sitting on the couch. I find I can answer them quicker if I’m exclusively focused on getting them done, and batching is often really helpful, if I received 2-3 emails from students about something, a class-wide email or announcement might be appropriate.

    For personal, I feel like I don’t get tons and tons of emails (maybe b/c we realised last week we’ve been left off the school email list since AUGUST! Oops, guess it spared all those “low risk Covid contact” emails, but we also missed every dress-up day). I use folder rules for Ads, Longreads (all those substack newsletters), and Receipts. I tend to go through once a week as nothing is particularly urgent. I do the same with paper mail, we get about 10 things a week, again none of them urgent.

    • Reply Coree March 16, 2022 at 6:43 am

      I also paid for the storage after spending an hour sorting by large files and deleting, and realising it was worth the £ to save me time.

  • Reply Joy March 16, 2022 at 6:46 am

    Work: I try for inbox weekly and do have folders. Personal: inbox infinite. I’ve tried going zero but there’s just so much stuff. Maybe I need to just dump it all into an archive and start fresh!

  • Reply Sarah March 16, 2022 at 6:46 am

    Inbox Infinite! For my personal email, I try to address school / kid-related emails immediately. Everything else – eh, it gets ignored unless there is some kind of reminder sent later.

    At work, I try to address 80% ish of my emails, but never reach Inbox Zero or sort into folders. The volume of emails we all receive is so overwhelming that my team verbally keeps each other informed of key deadlines and email conversations. Not a locked-down system by any means, but it hasn’t resulted in any misses (yet).

  • Reply Laura March 16, 2022 at 6:57 am

    I process every couple of days to get to current in terms of responses, deleting, or leaving something for reference, but if I have dealt with an e-mail I just leave it there. It doesn’t bother me to have a read e-mail sitting in my inbox. It’s not like it keeps me from walking across the room the way stuff on the floor would. It’s also not like a dishwasher where it has to be emptied to keep the e-mail program functional. So the number of messages in the inbox is high but it is much like your archive folder…except it isn’t in a separate folder.

  • Reply Gillian March 16, 2022 at 7:23 am

    I process my personal email weekly…on Wednesday mornings as chance would have it.

    We have a family email for communications with school, after school and all other things kid related. That typical gets process in real time by my husband or I. We keep most emails we get in there (yes to the email about silly sock day, no to the daily cafeteria order).

    I don’t really have a functional work email. Patient interactions go though our patient portal. I have a gmail based email and a hospital email both of which mostly get announcements about grand rounds or reminders to submit my covid vaccination proof etc. I check those once a week or so and let the email pile up.

  • Reply Amanda March 16, 2022 at 7:54 am

    Both Inbox Infinite for work and personal. I do use folders, but I set up rules so that emails get filed into those folders when they come IN. For work, these are things I get constantly but only deal with once a week or once a month. They just sit in the folder until I need them and don’t clog my inbox. For personal email, I have a folder for retail/shopping, school daily wellness check, school online portal emails, emails from my church, emails offering free CPE, etc.

  • Reply Jessica March 16, 2022 at 7:57 am

    I never delete emails! Also I keep them marked unread if I still need to deal with them, so I usually have 30-100 unread emails. It doesn’t bother me – but I’m also not bothered by mess in my home, I’m curious if this is correlated?

    • Reply Sara March 16, 2022 at 3:39 pm

      This is exactly how I handle my email… marked as unread until I’ve read it and (if needed) dealt with it. And I have it sorted so unread emails are at the top. Also, Sarah, I am 100% with you on the search being good enough to not need folders. And I don’t delete emails either so I pay Google for storage.

  • Reply Mariana March 16, 2022 at 8:27 am

    I do a mix of inbox zero daily and weekly. I mostly sort on a daily basis but some things I leave on the inbox for a few days until I address them (generally things that need a reply but not urgently).

    I honestly do not find it that hard to keep up with. Maybe I just get less emails than other people? Although I work a corporate scientist job and I have plenty of personal emails too (I have no kids yet though)… Or maybe since I have ALWAYS done this because I can’t stand a cluttered inbox (or cluttered anything for that matter), it has also made it easier to keep up? It has never been a big objective for me, just the way I work, I always keep my inbox/downloads folder/desktop clean so that my brain is at peace haha

    • Reply Coree March 16, 2022 at 8:32 am

      I think I’m the same, my colleagues complain about email, but I think I’ve just always had decent systems for managing it, avoiding letting it take over my workdays. I wonder if it’s a workplace norms difference, I’m an academic so if I reply to an email after 3 days, that would be considered speedy, in other fields, that’s not the same.

  • Reply Elisabeth March 16, 2022 at 8:30 am

    I’m Inbox Mostly Zero (daily) with caveats.
    I use a mail client and have four different accounts (2 work + 2 personal) that feed directly into this client. Then I have one other work account (mostly relating to a specific, big, decades-long project) that I check separately a few times a week.
    1) I read every e-mail that comes in each day and either delete, move to folders (this is mostly for work, I don’t have a lot of folders for personal e-mails) or leave in my inbox as a reminder to deal with the e-mail later.
    2) I RARELY hit Inbox Zero because there is almost some e-mail that I need to leave in there as a reminder to complete a specific task.
    3) I stopped reading work e-mails over the weekend. I go to the top of the hierarchy of my e-mail client on Friday evening so I only access my personal accounts. I can see the e-mail count of work e-mails that have accumulated, but I don’t look at them until Monday morning. So 2 days/week I don’t read a subset of e-mails.

    I consider myself to be an “Inbox Zero” person, but in reality while I read all my e-mails each day, I don’t necessarily deal with them all immediately. By the end of any given day I typically have 5-10 e-mails (read) in my account that are action items.

    Also, I delete TONS of e-mails. I’m able to search through the Trash anyway…I actually find it very satisfying to delete e-mails!

    • Reply Sarah Hart-Unger March 16, 2022 at 8:40 am

      I also have completely stopped checking my work email on weekends. I feel that if something’s urgent, I will get a phone call or (ugh) EPIC message.

  • Reply Marianne March 16, 2022 at 8:46 am

    I love inbox zero but do not have a system for hitting it. I’m thinking it could be a good 23 in 23 item though as a friend has get inbox to 22 or less on the 22nd of each month. I could go for inbox zero on the 23rd.

  • Reply Stacy Scarafone March 16, 2022 at 8:51 am

    Like you, I purge weekly or every two weeks (if we have a busy weekend!).

  • Reply Ann March 16, 2022 at 9:02 am

    I am definitely inbox zero but I have a system that cheats it a little bit. I try to read the emails in my work inbox only once there and then move them to action-oriented files – review for emails that I need to take time to work on, working for email that I am already tracking on/working on, to file for emails that need to be saved separately for documentation and archive for everything else. I set up quick steps in outlook so it’s very easy to sort quickly. I get hundreds of emails a day and it keeps me on top of things.

  • Reply Elizabeth March 16, 2022 at 9:04 am

    Inbox infinite. I use labels in gmail for messages I need to reply to but rather than archiving I leave in my inbox to search.

  • Reply Nicole C Vinson March 16, 2022 at 9:14 am

    My response is similar to Laura’s. I would like to completely stop checking work email on weekends! Kudos to you, Sarah!

  • Reply Seppie March 16, 2022 at 9:19 am

    I was curious about the same question Jessica asked: if email clutter tolerance correlates with physical clutter tolerance.

    But on reflection, I decided that for me, it’s more similar to bank accounts. Just like there is a number that I’m not comfortable dipping below in each of my bank accounts, there’s a number I’m not comfortable getting above in each of my inboxes.

    Also like bank accounts, each of my inboxes serves a different purpose and so is handled in a different way (e.g., two of my business inboxes are jointly managed and so serve as a form of internal communication – emails stay in the inbox until someone has dealt with them, and then they get archived immediately.)

    So my answer is not ever inbox zero, and not inbox infinite, more like inbox 15-200.

  • Reply Erin March 16, 2022 at 9:25 am

    Inbox zero, and always have been so now it makes me twitchy when I have to scroll in my inbox at all. Whenever I’m on my laptop, I have both work and personal inboxes open and check them pretty much constantly which is a bad habit. I hate notifications of any kind on my phone or laptop so I do clear them instantly even if I leave things in my inbox on read. I don’t use folders, I just archive things and search. I DO leave things read in my inbox as to-do items or reminders but try to have less than 10 emails in there. Generally speaking, email does not overwhelm me.

    I do NOT have my work email on my phone, but sometimes I do check on weekends (mostly because I teach a college class and due dates are on Sundays so I get a lot of student questions then).

  • Reply Halle March 16, 2022 at 9:37 am

    Inbox Infinite — everyone is different, but I receive 50-100 work emails per day and cannot imagine investing the time to keep it clean. I rarely miss something important.

    My work uses slack, project management & ticketing systems for primary uses of communication, and I do keep a close eye on those daily.

  • Reply Taryn March 16, 2022 at 9:38 am

    Wow, good job with Inbox Zero! I use folders to keep organized, but I’d say I’m Inbox Infinite. My work email gets forwarded to my gmail though, so gmail is work AND personal. Which I’m sure lots of people would not like, but it works for me!

  • Reply Lisa of Lisa's Yarns March 16, 2022 at 9:46 am

    Inbox infinite over here both for work and personal. For work, I will use flags to highlight something I can do in the moment but needs to be addressed. That way I can sort by flagged emails. I use flags to keep an email that I think I may need to reference again. I will delete things in both personal and work email but that’s the extent of it. I used to use folders for my work email and then read a piece that talked about how not sorting into folders is better than sorting because of the great search functionality. There are a handful of things that I do sort into folder but it’s so limited that if I know that that report is sorted and where to look for it. I have 80,000 emails in my inbox at work which probably makes some people panic/sweat! Ha. But – I HATE physical clutter and am a generally tidy person so there isn’t a correlation between email and physical clutter in my case. So it sounds like I am very similar to Laura when it comes to email! Years ago I did go through an exercise where I deleted a ton of emails from gmail but it seemed like a waist of time because they just pile up again and I wouldn’t get enough satisfaction from archiving things. So they just stay in my inbox.

  • Reply Diana March 16, 2022 at 10:03 am

    Inbox Infinity! For a long time I would’ve described my method as “insane and careless” but once inbox infinite became a buzzword and was treated like its own legitimate system, I latched on! I have tens of thousands of unread emails in both my work and Gmail accounts. Even when I unsubscribe to things, somehow they seem to re-accumulate. I’m pretty good about responding to important emails quickly so my system doesn’t feel disorganized. I also deliberately ignore certain work emails – the kind where if the sender just takes a few moments to look something up on their own, they’ll get the answer they need. If I’m not responding to something quickly, I’ll make a note in my (paper) planner to respond. It would not work for everyone and inbox zero would certainly look so much better, but at this point there’s no way I’d ever get to zero so might as well embrace infinity!

  • Reply KGC March 16, 2022 at 10:28 am

    I’m probably some version of inbox weekly – I cannot stand unread emails so I make sure to read them all and then either deal right away, file appropriately (I use folders at work and labels in gmail), or leave in the inbox to be dealt with in the next few days-week (after which they get filed/archived). Since tasks coming in are never-ending, there are almost always a handful of messages in the inbox (all read, of course) so it’s not a TRUE inbox zero but more just my version of it. I truly truly do not understand people (MY HUSBAND) whose email icon on the phone says 37,849 unread messages. It gives me hives thinking about it. FWIW, I also can’t stand a cluttered house.

    • Reply Amy March 16, 2022 at 3:31 pm

      My husband is the same way and I can feel myself breaking out in hives too 😂😂 how do they do it??

  • Reply Louise March 16, 2022 at 10:48 am

    So, somewhat strangely, I am inbox zero at work, always archiving and using as a task list (22 emails), but my personal gmail is inbox infinity – 4,181 emails. Both are gmail. Absolutely no idea why I archive work but not personal. It’s almost as though work is an irritation that I want to file away whereas I am happy to feel “full” in my personal inbox!

  • Reply Sophie March 16, 2022 at 10:48 am

    I’m a version of inbox infinite, my work inbox i need to have then at least all read, but I leave them all in there. My personal Gmail I have 1286 currently unread, but I’ve checked them and nothings important. So it doesn’t bother me for some reason!

  • Reply Jen March 16, 2022 at 10:49 am

    Also aiming for a weekly clean out of my personal email. This helps me action things and get sorted. Especially kid things and bills.

    For work, I moved to an area that uses Slack more than email and aside from the initial overwhelm of learning it and my orgs approach to it I love that we barely use email.

  • Reply Nelle March 16, 2022 at 10:49 am

    For my personal email I am Inbox Infinite. For my work email I am Zero Sometimes—would love to get to zero at least weekly if not daily but not there yet!

  • Reply Diane March 16, 2022 at 10:58 am

    I’m inbox infinite. I think I need to get better at managing the inputs, unsubscribing to things as quickly as I can. I have a yahoo account and the spam/junk mail is a little unrelenting. I agree that Outlook is also unwieldy.
    I feel like, too, I’m so used to seeing the infinite inbox that if I were suddenly to go to zero, I might have a bit of panic that something happened to my email. On the other hand I am running into storage with my one google account so I am a tiny bit motivated to get that under control.
    My work account got wiped by the company during the pandemic when my colleagues and I were all unemployed, and it was a little disconcerting when I finally started back up and there was nothing in my inbox.

  • Reply Jenn N March 16, 2022 at 11:17 am

    Inbox zero sometimes! Usually I have somewhere between 20-150 emails and rarely get to actual zero because I don’t like to axe my coupons and e-gift cards – for me when they’re out of sight they’re out of mind! But when I let the number get too high I miss little action items here and there.

  • Reply Jessica C March 16, 2022 at 11:25 am

    Inbox infinite! But I don’t leave any email unread. I hate seeing that red bubble on my phone screen.

    • Reply Diane March 16, 2022 at 12:01 pm

      I’ve turned off all my red bubbles! I found it created a false sense of urgency for me.

    • Reply Lisa of Lisa's Yarns March 16, 2022 at 1:57 pm

      Oh this is me, too! Can not handle those red bubbles on any ap!

    • Reply Gillian March 16, 2022 at 5:20 pm

      I have also turned off all the red bubbles.

  • Reply Catherine March 16, 2022 at 1:46 pm

    I’m “Inbox Infinite.” I love the concept of “Inbox Zero” but I think my time is worth more than the benefit of having an organized inbox. I also can’t find anything if it’s in folders. I do occasionally just dump anything older than a certain date into an archive for that year.

  • Reply Chelsea March 16, 2022 at 2:17 pm

    I’m inbox zero-ish. I know the advice is not to use your inbox as a reminder system, but I find it to be a very powerful reminder system. I try to process email as it comes it, and I use my inbox as a to-do/reminder list. For example, I’m leaving for a weekend out of town on Friday. I set everything related to that weekend to snooze until last Sunday, when I wanted it to pop back up for my weekly planning, and then I set it to un-snooze tomorrow morning so it’s back at the top of mind. I tend to have less than 10 emails in my in-box at any one time, so I find that system helpful and not overwhelming.

    • Reply Chelsea March 16, 2022 at 2:18 pm

      I wanted to add… everything I’m done with gets archived. I have had no problems searching for something I need later.

    • Reply Coree March 16, 2022 at 4:53 pm

      Oh I snooze things all the time and find this and delay send so so useful. I’m chairing a viva in April and snoozed the instructions until the week before, so I’ll see it exactly when I need it (to send out the reminder email exactly one week in advance)

  • Reply Brooke March 16, 2022 at 3:07 pm

    Team infinite inbox! I just use search a lot when I need something. Esp. for work, an incoming email might cover multiple projects and then I get paralyzed on where to file it. Though I do have rules for newsletter, promotions, and similar items. That way I can read when I have time or check for a coupon code when I’m ready to buy something, but it doesn’t regularly clutter up my inbox

  • Reply Amy March 16, 2022 at 3:34 pm

    I’m not sure what my approach is called — I just read emails, deal with them, and move on with my life — I can’t stand having unread emails, but everything just sits there in my inbox, totally un-organized. I use the search function all the time. I do think I need to shell out the $20 for storage now that you’ve put it like that (it’s not worth $20 of my time to keep going through and deleting!).

    This is just for my personal email, though. I’m about to go back to work, however, into a whole new style of work where I will have more independence than I’ve ever had before (psychotherapy) — I need an email organization system ASAP!

  • Reply sbc March 16, 2022 at 4:07 pm

    My preference is inbox < 10 for both work and personal email. I keep things in there until I've acted on them. In personal email (gmail) I archive most things without tagging them; for work (outlook) I use folders but many of them are quite broad categories.

  • Reply Shelly March 16, 2022 at 5:20 pm

    My system is a non-system and works ok but sometimes things slip through the cracks. Reading the comments has been great to give me ideas on creating a better system. I’m leaning towards inbox zero as I do delete some items. Although to get there would be a work in progress as I have about 2,000 work emails and several hundred personal. I find search doesn’t always work for me because I don’t have the right key words or sender and then I end up doing a lot of scrolling which is driving me crazy.

  • Reply Caitlin March 16, 2022 at 6:07 pm

    I would love to get to Inbox Zero regularly but in reality I’m Inbox Infinite. However, I have never had an easy time with Gmail’s search function–it always seems like I am slightly off with my search terms in some way and even though the results include seemingly random things it’s not what I was looking for. Outlook’s search isn’t great, either, but I’ve had better luck with it than Gmail.

  • Reply Vanessa Mendoza March 16, 2022 at 6:44 pm

    Inbox infinite!!

  • Reply Alyce March 16, 2022 at 11:23 pm

    The only email approach that has ever worked for me was in grad school, when my automatic response informed people that I only checked my email once a day from 12-1, but if they needing something more urgent than that, they could call me. I did not include my phone number – if they didn’t have it, we weren’t close enough that any emergency they had was in fact my emergency. The main reason why this approach worked for me was because over time, I got less and less email, and what I did get was never the super urgent “you have to deal with this immediately” type of email. It was glorious. On a bad day, I can easily get 100+ emails at work, nearly all of which require some action on my end. I’m literally never going to win the battle against email, and there’s no email management approach that may be acceptable in a professional setting that actually addresses my real problem – too many emails with too many tasks to so imbedded.

  • Reply Christine March 17, 2022 at 11:13 am

    Inbox zero in theory, over here! (Which I guess means not really inbox zero.) For my freelance work + personal (which is all in the same account so far.. someday when I have the bandwidth, maybe I’ll separate them), I have a system of folders/labels, so every email that I receive either:
    – gets deleted (satisfying!),
    – dealt with right away and then labelled and archived (also satisfying!),
    – labelled but not archived, which means some follow-up is still required (for example, I have one color label that means a freelance project has been accounted for in terms of when I’ll do it, but has not yet been done; then it gets another label once it’s been done, and it only gets archived once it has also been invoiced)
    – not even labelled: means I have glanced over it but not taken whatever the relevant next step is (answer it, calendar something, accept or reject a freelance project)… this last category is sort of pointless, because if I’ve opened the email, I should at least somehow assign it as a task to a later time rather than leaving them to read again, essentially taking up twice as much time as it should need

    So, having everything labelled and read is sort of partial sense of inbox zero… and I could reach actual inbox zero about twice a month when I invoice everything (I save BLP episodes to listen to while I invoice, by the way – only way I can motivate myself to do it!), but in reality there is usually some long-range task lurking at the bottom and blocking true inbox zero. At the moment it’s an online safety training course I need to do to comply with one of my clients’ policies. I keep hoping the lure of true inbox zero will motivate me to actually assign those types of task to a concrete time slot before the end of the month, but so far no luck.

  • Reply Christine March 17, 2022 at 11:17 am

    PS Totally agree about gmail vs outlook!! The above description is of a gmail account and I love everything about it. I have to use outlook for another job, and I have yet to get used to it. Bizarre fact, though: my sister in law recently had to switch from outlook to gmail, also for work, and said she can’t make heads or tails of the switch either. I keep thinking we should conduct a training session for each other on our respective preferred email clients.

  • Reply Hilary March 18, 2022 at 4:11 pm

    My goal is Inbox Zero but my reality is Inbox Infinite (or currently, Inbox 1,194 with that many un-archived messages, all but the latest few read). I treat my inbox as my “to do” list and I am a very reliable/organized person overall, but I want to figure out a system that works better here. I think I am too much a perfectionist when it comes to my bar for archiving – be it a tiny detail from a school newsletter, a social email I “ought” to reply to, or a refund that I want to make sure goes into my account. I feel like I spend a lot of time trying to go through and deal with/respond/delete emails, but there are always more! So do I spend MORE time trying to fix this (this is my instinct) or intentionally switch approaches?

    • Reply Sarah Hart-Unger March 19, 2022 at 6:58 am

      Hmm – but it sounds like keeping that many items will not let you follow up on so many things. Could you cover the more important things to another more streamlined system (for me this is why I use Apple Notes to collect things that I’m waiting for, or podcast questions that I need to save for later) and delete everything else?

      I actually bet if you set a FULL workday (like 8 hours) you could get to 0 🙂

  • Reply Beth @ Parent Lightly March 21, 2022 at 9:58 am

    Inbox infinite all the way!

  • Reply Anupama March 25, 2022 at 5:56 pm

    work: inbox read everything weekly (goal); home: inbox half-infinite

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