A Sane Alternative to Inbox Zero


Inbox Zero — the alleged ideal of emptying your email inbox at the end of every day — is a dumb waste of time.  It’s a trap that makes you feel guilty about your supposed disorganization. It makes you a slave to — not master of — your software. It is a pointless exercise in anal retentiveness. Shall I go on?

I tried Inbox Zero for awhile. It was fun at first and then became Sisyphean. Each new email produced anxiety, like, “how DARE you soil my precious mailbox?” Now, while I am not above using the nuclear option (aka Select-All-Delete), I employ a saner approach to email management.

The most crucial element of my approach is the ability to archive, rather than permanently delete, your email. Gmail does this by default. Outlook has enterprise add-ons like EmailXTender that do the same thing, even when space is restricted for individual users.  Once you have the peace-of-mind of being able to retrieve old emails, you can be totally cavalier about deleting them.

So which ones do you delete, and when? I usually have a live-and-let live attitude toward my mountain of email, deleting most as a I go but also allowing them to pile up for awhile. But there always comes a point at which I’m uncomfortable with the clutter and want it to go away. For you, this point may come once a week, once a month, or once a year. For me it seems to be about every three months. When this point comes, this is what I do:

  1. Sort by sender and delete all the unread newsletters and spam you’re never going to read. Also the ones from that one ass-head who forwards chain letters and six-year-old internet memes.
  2. Sort by date and delete everything older than a month or two. An email that’s been sitting around that long either (a) wasn’t important to begin with, (b) has already been dealt with, or (c) is now so old that it would be embarrassing to deal with. If this step scares you, remember you’re only archiving things, not permanently deleting them.
  3. Go through what’s left. Respond and delete appropriately. If there are some you can’t deal with and don’t want to trash, leave them alone and don’t feel guilty about it. Most likely you’ll trash it when you follow Step #2 again in a few months.

And that’s pretty much it. Since allowing a little inbox chaos in my life, I feel saner and happily imperfect. And I never seem to have a problem finding old emails when I need them.

Want more of my thoughts on Inbox Zero? See my post on Get Off My Lawn.


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