Inbox Almost Zero

While I’m not a believer in Inbox Zero, I am also not a believer in Inbox 8,248. 

Somewhere in between there will be a comfortable, productive zone for you, and I’d like to help you get there.

Inbox Zero isn’t what you probably think it is

When Merlin Mann introduced the concept of Inbox Zero, he didn’t mean the goal is zero messages in your Inbox.

“It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life," he said. "That zero? It’s not how many messages are in your inbox — it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.” 

What I take away from this is that it’s fine to have messages in your Inbox that you need right now. But your Inbox isn’t a To Do list, and it doesn’t need to be a stroll down Memory Lane. Scrolling through hundreds or thousands of messages is frustrating, right?

You can get this under control easily in Gmail

When I ask a customer why they have so many emails in their Inbox, the answer almost always is:

“I might need one of them some day.”

And the plan then is to scroll up and down the Inbox looking for some message from months or years ago.

There’s an easier way.

I’m going to focus on Gmail here, but the general principles are the same for other web-based email services and for email programs.

Two things to know about Gmail. First, the “G” stands for “Google” so Gmail has a powerful search feature. You don’t have to scroll! You can type some words into the box at the top of the Gmail window and click on the search icon.

That’s going to search ALL your email.

Second, you can save any email you want to by be clicking on the Archive icon (It looks like a folder with a downward pointing arrow.) That saves the email, but takes it out of your Inbox. How do you find it again?


Do you really need it back in your Inbox? Search for it, open it, click on “Move to Inbox.”

Take it to the next level

Gmail has a feature called Labels. (Other services and programs allow you to create folders. Labels are like folders, but more powerful. You can have more than one label for a message.)

If you label a message with someone’s name, archive the message and need it later, you can narrow your search by searching just that label.

If you need to see every message with that label, click on the label and scroll through the messages. You can assign colours to labels, which makes it easier to see the labels if that’s how your brain works.

More about Gmail labels here.

Using Filters (which other services and programs sometimes call Rules) allows you to label messages and skip the Inbox completely. Every message from my brother is filtered before it hits the Inbox so that it shows up with a red label that is his name.

Here’s how to create your filters.

Why is this good?

Remember Mann’s idea? Reducing clutter and imposing a little bit of structure frees you up to concentrate on the emails that you need right now and to be able to retrieve emails from an archive painlessly.

And it means you can do it quickly.

To keep your Inbox under control, unsubscribe to things you don’t read. (Not my newsletter! Of course, you read that. But now you can label and archive it.)

And be relentless about new mail that comes in:

  • Read it.
  • Act on it.
  • Delete it.
  • Archive it.
  • Don’t let it hang around in the Inbox.

What tips do you have for keeping your Inbox under control?

Send email (It’s OK. I promise.) to [email protected] and I’ll share them in a future column.


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About the Author

The Technology Shaman, Cate Eales, has been helping people make online computing safe, accessible, and fun for over 30 years.

Cate lives in Kelowna with her husband, Eric. She owns and operates Computer Care Kelowna, a mobile computer business providing on-site service for home and small business customers.

Cate is here to help you and your home or business computer get along.

E-mail Cate at [email protected] with comments, suggestions, or questions.

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