A holistic approach to inbox zero

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Email has been around for over 30 years and outside of phone calls, is the main way business is conducted, so it comes as no surprise that a lot of people’s day is spent dealing with email.

Every few years a bunch of startups pop up attempting to fix email, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with email. It’s an ideal, asynchronous communication system - if used right.

Inbox zero has become the goal of many, who will not rest until they reach this state of digital nirvana. When I used to check email frequently, seeing a full inbox used to stress me out.

Just seeing that number, showing me how many emails I still had to deal with gave me some amount of anxiety.

One day, during my frantic efforts to clear my inbox I felt myself getting stressed out once again, and even experienced an uncomfortable knot in my chest.

I thought to myself: “hold on a minute, I’m getting stressed out over stuff on a screen, this is stupid!”

I started to question why it was important to me to clear my inbox - I came up with nothing. See, we often have these narratives in our head, of things that should be important to us.

These narratives could be from parents, teachers, managers, society, or just mysteriously inhabit our minds for unknown reasons. Either way we should stop and ask ourselves:

“Why is inbox zero important?”

Now, I’m not saying trying to clear your inbox is bad. I’m just saying that it shouldn’t cause you stress. In fact, reaching inbox zero is lovely. It’s a short lived dopamine, signalling you’ve achieved something.

Before blindly racing to that finish line however, I’d like to suggest a more holistic approach that achieves the same thing. One that shouldn’t stress you out.

Email = physical mail

Let’s say you know someone cool, and they actually send you a handwritten letter. Once you make your way to your mailbox and retrieve said letter, you might open it up and read it, before placing it somewhere.

Over the next few days or so, you might even read it a few more times before you think to yourself “maybe I should write back.”

I like to treat email just like physical mail. When I receive it, I’ll see who it’s from, and decide if it requires an immediate response. Spoiler alert: most things don’t require an immediate response, so I tag it, close it, and get on with my day.

Reduced contact

As a natural progression from the previous point, checking email often only leads to one thing - getting into a habit of checking email even more often. It’s way too easy to become a slave to your inbox.

Try and set particular times in the day to check your email and stick to those. Perhaps carve out an hour in the morning and then again in the evening to only deal with email.

This increases your focus for all other things you do during the day.

Let go

Why is inbox zero important to you, is it because everyone is talking about it? Try to let your inbox fill up, and only deal with stuff that actually needs a response.

Let the number climb for a few days and try not to do anything about it. How does it feel? Try to do this for as long as possible, ignoring the discomfort. This is sort of like a form of email exposure therapy.

After some time of doing this, you’ll start to notice that most emails just aren’t that important. What I challenge you to do now, is select all emails in your inbox, and hit delete.

Feels great, right?

What you’ve now hopefully achieved, is removed anxiety from seeing a lot of emails in your inbox, by just not caring about them.

You’ve given yourself a clean slate to work from, for you to carry out the next action.


Most things don’t actually require an email. For the most part I hang out on Twitter, so prefer to direct most of my communication to that medium.

Try to limit who you give your email address to, and if too many people have it, perhaps create a new one, and only hand it out to a select few people.

Create specific email accounts for ordering stuff online, or for signing up and subscribing to a variety of services.

This way your precious, main email account only receives the mail you want.


You’ll find that most emails in your inbox are actually spam or random newsletters from things you signed up for (or not).

If creating a new, burner email address is out of the option, then there are tools to help you.

Leave Me Alone: This service scans and finds all of your subscription emails, and gives you the option of unsubscribing to them, all whilst respecting your privacy, unlike unroll.me.

Earn: Not suitable for everyone, but attaching your email to this service requires people to pay you, to actually receive their email. Update: Earn has since been discontinued, and is a name for a different service.