3 Simple Steps To Get You To Inbox Zero Today (And Why It Will Bring You More Peace Than You Think)

inbox zero

So you just love email, right?


Of course, you don’t. Few people do.

Of all the time-suckers that show up in modern work, email is near the top of most lists.  If you tallied the amount of time you spend on email, it would astound you.

Add to that the frustration it causes you (the stress of how many unanswered emails you have, the emails you never seem to get answered, the tough ones you’re dreading etc etc), and it’s no wonder email is a headache for almost all of us.

A month ago, I decided to get to inbox zero and stay there.

30 days later, I can’t tell you how much better I feel.

The concept of inbox zero has been around since there was email, but few people live by it. I’ve hit inbox zero more than a few times in my life and stayed there for a few days before drifting back into a cluttered inbox again.

I’m not one of those 4359 unread email guys. No, my bad habits were 2-20 read but unanswered emails sitting in my inbox…perpetually. If I answered a few of them, I let a few more take their place.

No big deal you say? Actually, big deal. It stressed me out every day.

I’ve figured out how to stay there, and I want to share what I’m learning.

First, two simple rules that will help you stay at inbox zero, then 3 ways inbox zero will bring you leadership peace, and finally, a 3 step plan on how to get to inbox zero today.

Ready? Here we go. It’s simpler than you think.

Two Simple Rules To Stay At Inbox Zero

So the two rules I adopted for inbox zero are simple:

Touch it once.

Deal with it immediately or put it on a task list.

One of the problems with a full inbox is that you might look at an email five to fifteen times before responding. You hover over it, think about it and leave it. Then you come back to it again a day later and think not now. The third time you look at it you think I should really talk to Emily first, then I can answer that. And so on and so on. And eight days later, it’s still not dealt with.

All of this is a problem for so many reasons. So much time is wasted. So much energy gets spent on nothing.

So, touch an email once. If you can’t deal with it, don’t open it. But then you shouldn’t even be in your inbox…so, open it.

And once it’s opened, you either answer it immediately or if it’s complex and needs time to think through, put it on your task list. I use Asana, so you can copy it over, but any basic task list would do.

Then you’re back to zero.

The problem with using your inbox as a task list is that multiple random emails at 100 words each make for a terribly confusing task list. It’s mud, or better yet, quicksand.

There’s no prioritization, no due date, nothing specific about what needs to be done with it.

If it’s a task, make it a task. Schedule it. Be specific. Then do it.

The surprise with this simple system?

You will deal with about 99% of your emails right on the spot. No delay. And for the rest? They’re real tasks. Which you’ll get to at the appropriate time.

And then you go back into your inbox and it’s clean.

So…why is inbox zero a better way to live and lead? I’m going to deal with that first because you likely won’t get to inbox zero unless you can see the difference it will make.

There are at least three reasons inbox zero will make you a better leader and give you some much-needed peace.

The problem with using your inbox as a task list is that multiple random emails at 100 words each makes for a terribly confusing task list. Click To Tweet

1. It will force you to make decisions, fast

As a professional organizer, Andrew Mellen so perceptively said on my leadership podcast, “Clutter is deferred decision making.” (Episode 139)


Clutter is deferred decision making. @andrewjmellen Click To Tweet

The reason your closet and garage are a mess is because you can’t decide what to do with your things. So you just leave them in a pile or stick them in a corner for later because you can’t make a decision. And the mess accumulates.

Ditto with your inbox.

Living at inbox zero forces you to make decisions faster, about everything that comes your way. If you can’t leave it in your inbox, you deal with it.

And, you then only look at your inbox when you have five minutes to make decisions.

All around, this will be a surprising boost to your efficiency and decision-making capability.

It’s surprised me.

The reason your closet and garage are a mess is because you can't decide what to do with your things. So you just leave them in a pile or stick them in a corner for later because you can't make a decision. Ditto with your inbox. Click To Tweet

2. You’ll get small tasks done immediately

You know what your day to day mostly is? 100 small decisions.

Really small.

If you’re forced to empty your inbox, the decision becomes binary. You deal with it right then when you open it, or you move it to a task list.

You’ll eventually get to a place where you think Do I really want to move this to a task list and take the time to do it? No…so I’ll handle it now.

Ironically, you might think you’ll spend more time making decisions because you have to clear your inbox every time, but you’ll actually spend less time making decisions because you only had to make the decisions once. Not twice when you opened your inbox again. Or eight-six times because that thing’s been sitting there for ages.

You may be surprised at how much of your daily work is small decisions that feel unnecessarily bigger when you don’t deal with them immediately.

So deal with them immediately.

You may be surprised at how much of your daily work is small decisions that feel unnecessarily bigger when you don't deal with them immediately. Click To Tweet

3. You’ll lose the mental drain of inbox clutter and unresolved tasks

One of the challenges of the work many of us do today is that there’s no finish line.

How do you know when you’ve reached an entire city? How will you know when you’ve maximized potential?

Are you ever done with people?

All of this and more is why it’s so easy to carry the weight of leadership home with you every night and carry it with you in your pocket wherever you go.

Hitting zero means you’re finished. You have a sense of accomplishment.

See this little inbox graphic Gmail gives you?

A month into this experiment, I’m still excited to see it every time and honestly, still delightfully surprised. I’m done!

Not convinced that unfinished tasks and a cluttered leadership space are bad for mental health?

Well, by comparison, research suggests that living in an organized, clutter free-home can reduce stress, help you sleep better,  foster higher productivity and potentially even help you lose weight.

Maybe your disorganization and indecision are costing you more than you think.

Leaders, disorganization and indecision is costing you more than you think. Click To Tweet

3 Simple Steps to Get to Inbox Zero Today

Great theory, you say. But how do I get to inbox zero….today?

Here are three steps that will help you get there fast.

These steps will work for those leaders with 5-10 stagnant emails sitting in your inbox and those leaders with 4397 unread emails.

Step 1: Deal with all your unread emails, or delete them

I know this sound draconian, but take 30 minutes and deal with ALL your unread emails, or delete them.

If you have a dozen emails lingering, 30 minutes is likely way more than you need to get to inbox zero. But just set it aside anyway. Maybe you need to build a task management system too (as I shared, I use Asana, but there are hundreds of task management systems out there. (Here’s a list of some current task management apps).

So what if you’re the guy or woman with a million unread emails?

I’ve never been there, but here’s my suggestion. Pick an arbitrary date (maybe two weeks or a month at the most) and deal with all those.

Then archive or delete the rest. 

What, you say, how can I do that? Those people are relying on me…there’s critical data in there.

Actually, that’s not true. Some of those people who sent unread emails have forgotten you. Some may have even died, who knows?

And that email from 2016 you never looked at, do you really think that’s still a live issue?

Nope. It’s not.

If you’re terrified of losing data, mark them all as read and batch-archive them so they’re searchable. Then move on with your life.

And if you’re terrified of letting people down, send one email to your critical contacts and say something like this.

Subject: Got a pressing issue I haven’t dealt with? Can you re-send your email?

Hi Friends,

I’ve decided to get to inbox zero and start organizing my workflow in a new way.

To that end, today I’m going to delete every email that’s over 30 days old.

I apologize for not getting back to you on the relevant matter. If it’s still a current issue for you, do you mind resending me the email?

I promise I’ll be responding much faster in the future.

Thanks! I appreciate you!


There, you can even cut and paste that into your email. Just make sure you use your name. 🙂

Step 2. Limit reading email to a few times a day

Ironically, one of the fastest ways to get a cluttered inbox is to check email repeatedly throughout the day.

Maybe you’re in line at Starbucks and you look just to see who’s emailed you. But, of course, you don’t have time to deal with it, so you just tap on a few and move on.

But now you’re spending mental energy on problems you can’t solve right now. Bad idea.

So, just resolve to look at your email a few times a day, and set aside 10 minutes (or 30..depending on your email workload) to deal with it.

Finish at inbox zero every time, and remember, whatever you can’t answer in that window because it’s complex or something you’ll be working on later, move to a task list.

Although I sound like a broken record on this, you should also turn off all notifications for your inbox (and on your phone entirely). That way you won’t be tempted to look when you can’t deal with it.

If you only check email when you have time to deal with it, you’ll end up dealing with thing in far less time.

If you only check email when you have time to deal with it, you'll end up dealing with things in far less time. Click To Tweet

Step 3. Train Your Team To Wait for Meetings

The final way you can get to and stay at inbox zero is to reduce the amount of email you get.

And yes, you can do this.

Naturally, you can unsubscribe to a million things, but that still doesn’t solve work.

So here’s how to solve work: train the people around you to email you less and talk to you more.

Office culture has moved to management by email. It’s a terrible system.

Here’s what to do with all the people you meet with regularly: for anything that’s not urgent, ask them to wait to ask you about it until the next time you meet.

You’ll be shocked at how non-urgent most of what you’re dealing with is. And you’ll be shocked at how much time you spent urgently answering non-urgent email.

I ask my team to keep a list of everything they need to ask me. If things can’t wait for the next meeting, we’ll schedule a ten-30 minute phone call, Zoom call or quick meeting to deal with it.

Face to face or voice to voice is almost always more efficient because decisions require dialogue. Even something as simple as scheduling a meeting can go like this:

Jon wants to meet with you Thursday at 10.

What else do I have scheduled that day?

You have X, Y and Z.

Yeah, but I also have A B and C on Friday, so I think that’s not going to work on Thursday. I need to get some projects done Thursday too and that was my only quiet window.  Does he have any other time?

No, he said Thursday at 10 is his only window.

Oh, can we move my lunch meeting then?

We could move it to next Monday.

I’m planning on taking Monday off.



Great, then let’s make Thursday at 10 work and move my lunch to Tuesday.

That’s probably about 11 emails (for real, go check your email chain and see how many back and forth and replies and reply-alls are in your inbox).

It’s also about a 60-second conversation. Done.

Train your team to keep a list, and deal with it in person, over the phone or even in a ten-minute stand up meeting every day.

Well, you ask…what about truly urgent things?

Here’s what I’ve asked my team to do:

Make in-person discussion the default the during our meeting time.

Text if it’s truly urgent.

Phone if it’s truly urgent and too complicated for a text and can’t wait for a meeting.

Email for things that don’t fit any of the above categories.

Try this and watch your inbox gloriously shrink. Or play with the formula to see what works for your team.

Want to Get More Productive? How to Free Up 1000 Hours This Year

Email’s just one thing.

There are so many things that waste your time—how do you get on top of your leadership and your life?

Well, there’s a proven system that has helped thousands of leaders get far more productive at work AND spend more time at home with their family.

The High Impact Leader course, is my online, on-demand course designed to help you get time, energy and priorities working in your favour.

Many leaders who have taken it are recovering 3 productive hours a day.  That’s about 1000 hours of found time each year.

Maybe you’re suspicious and think “there’s no way I’d recover 1000 productive hours”.  Well, let’s say you got 3 hours a week back, not 3 hours a day.

Well, that’s 156 hours a year, which works out to almost a month of work weeks. Which is kind of like giving yourself four extra weeks of vacation.

All of that can happen and has happened through the High Impact Leader.

Here are what some alumni are saying about The High Impact Leader Course”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for providing the course again. It has absolutely made an impact in my life and family already that I can’t even describe.” – First Priority, Clayton County, North Carolina

“Carey’s course was the perfect way for our team to prepare for the new year. Our team, both collectively and individually, took a fresh look at maximizing our time and leadership gifts for the year ahead. I highly recommend this leadership development resource for you and your team.” Jeff Henderson, Gwinnett Church, Atlanta Georgia

“A lot of books and programs make big promises and cannot deliver but this is not one of them. I have read so many books and watched videos on productivity but the way you approach it and teach is helpful and has changed my work week in ministry in amazing ways.” Chris Sloan, Tanglewood Church, Kingston, North Carolina

“Just wow.  Thank you, thank you.” Dave Campbell, Invitation Church, Sioux Falls South Dakota

A game changer.” Pam Perkins, Red Rock Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado

If you want to start leveraging time, energy and priorities to help you lead better at work and at home, visit www.TheHighImpactLeader.com to learn more.

I don’t know where you’re at, but my heart is for every leader to get out of the trap of being busy but not productive, of working long hours but producing less than hoped for.

That’s what the High Impact Leader Course is all about: it’s about getting time, energy and priorities working in your favour. It’s about getting your life and leadership back.

Oh, and there’s a 30-day money back no-questions-asked guarantee. Nothing to lose. Everything to gain.

Click here to learn more or get instant access.

What’s Help You?

What’s helping you win the e-mail battle?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

3 Simple Steps To Get You To Inbox Zero Today (And Why It Will Bring You More Peace Than You Think)


  1. Thomas Beasley on April 21, 2021 at 3:53 pm

    I’ve been working on Inbox Zero and a program that has simplified that process is Microsoft To-do. If you are an Outlook user and have O365 then most likely you have access to Microsoft To-do. When in Outlook you can flag a message for follow up which adds it to Microsoft To-Do automatically. I then file it away permanently in Outlook. Inside Microsoft To-Do I can set a completion date, add notes, click the link to see the original email, add it to my daily task list, etc. This has been a big time saver for me!

    • Alvin Lau on April 21, 2021 at 4:35 pm

      That’s a great idea. MS and Google have other add-on/plug-ins that connect to other task management systems too.

  2. Alvin Lau on April 18, 2021 at 11:00 am

    Agree with the idea of delete or archive it as quickly as you can. Many email systems now have a snooze function. Having those emails reappear when my scheduled time to check keeps it temporarily out of mind.

  3. Tracy Linkletter on April 18, 2021 at 10:56 am

    Thank you so much for posting this, I am in the middle of trying to get the clutter of email down to zero and this has been very helpful. I am looking forward to practicing a ZERO inbox daily!

  4. Rose Lauck on April 18, 2021 at 8:29 am

    Carey. Thank you. I work full-time for a church and run two business on the side. I manage my family’s schedule and often have multiple projects going on in all four places. I realized after your post that I was using my in-box as a to-do list and that did not work. I spent hours combing through my in-box looking for a task for this project or that.
    I took your advice and started practicing in-box 0. I pay the bill, add to my calendar, put on a task list, and file information in folders in outlook. I can find the info so much easier and delete when a project is over. Your encouragement was key in my making that change. I enjoy your blogs and podcasts. Keep them coming.

  5. Dave on March 5, 2019 at 2:17 pm

    I’m in the 2-20 emails perpetually in my inbox camp. Part of the issue is I subscribe to a number of resources–like this blog for example–and it’s easy to get overwhelmed with daily/weekly contact from each. I enjoy the resources, but don’t have the time to open each one and engage with the content when they come in. So they sit in my inbox indefinitely. Since that’s not a task thing, I’m not sure how to deal with that other than unsubscribing.

  6. Jacob Pannell on March 5, 2019 at 9:53 am

    Got both of my inboxes down to zero yesterday! Excited to keep them there. Thanks, Carey!

  7. Karl Peterson on March 5, 2019 at 9:15 am

    Fantastic. I love Inbox zero. I use Asana as well and I can actually forward my emails into Asana and they are there with all attachments and information, I just have to add a due date. It’s very helpful. I have found that searching my folders in my email to be difficult so when it comes to data I actually move it all to OneNote. I sort them and is searchable and I can export them as PDFs or links to other Office 365 users.

  8. Chris Dixon on March 4, 2019 at 1:59 pm

    Nice. I love the “please re-send your important e-mail” template.

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