As of this writing, I have five emails in my main personal inbox, and 13 in my main work inbox. (Please hold your applause.) A few years ago, or whenever it was that people started talking about “Inbox Zero,” I was under the impression that they were referring to an inbox with literally zero emails in it. I didn’t get the appeal — if there were no emails in my inbox, what would I look at every time I clicked over to my email tab? Blank space? I like having something there, and think of it as the space in which I prioritize my various to-do tasks. When something is done, I delete it.
While this appears to be one definition of Inbox Zero, it’s also not the more popular one. Imagine my surprise when I learned that when most people refer to “Inbox Zero,” they don’t mean a literally empty inbox, but rather, one in which there are zero unread emails. There can be hundreds and thousands of emails in there, so long as they have all been marked “read.” This realization came to me months ago, at least, and I am still stunned, and a little annoyed. This is the great digital purification challenge of our times? I feel akin to the way I felt when I learned what Next’s “Too Close” was really about some four or five years after its release: embarrassed. Only this time, it’s not for myself.
First let me tell you why I believe “Inbox Zero” is the bare minimum, and a central inbox with, say, 50 or fewer read emails is the goal: if there is shit in your inbox that’s unread and more than a month old, you do not need it. Obviously, everyone’s got some sentimental stuff from, like, 2014 at the back-end of the inbox, and that’s fine, as long as you’ve made the conscious decision to keep it. What I cannot and will not understand is why you wouldn’t just delete an unread email you do not need. Oh, and here is how you know you don’t need it: you didn’t open it!!
Now you’re like, sure, sounds great in theory, but there are 1,000 or 10,000 unread emails in my inbox, and it’s too late now. In response, I urge you to think of your mental wellness. Both of these numbers make me feel insane — to me, “Inbox (1,000)” may as well read “1,000 Things You Have Not Done.” I can’t imagine how anyone can ignore it. It cannot possibly feel good to open your inbox and see a value larger (maybe much larger) than what’s in your savings account. I know you must be thinking you’ll “get around to them” someday, or else you would have deleted them already. I am here to tell you that you won’t. That day isn’t coming.
I’d estimate that the vast majority of emails have a one-month reply window, provided you aren’t on vacation or experiencing other mitigating circumstances. If you’ve been aware of an email for a month, and you’ve been able to respond to it during that period, and you haven’t, you never will. (At first I wrote one week, and I still sort of believe it, but then I figured you might find that too severe, and all good habits begin in moderation.) So if this is you, and your inbox number is stressing you out, here’s what you do first: delete every unreplied-to email (unread and read) more than a year old to start. Then, at minimum, delete only the unread emails more than six months old. From there, depending on how many unread emails you have left, you can sift a little more carefully up to the present day, but if I were you, I’d go ahead and delete every unread email more than a month old, too.
If you’re nervous about this, I understand. Start with your work email, where it is — let’s face it — much less likely that someone who actually, urgently needs to get in touch with you will let you remain silent. (If your boss needs you, don’t you think she’ll follow up? Or Slack you? And remember, we’re talking about emails you haven’t read anyway, so let’s not pretend you’re trying to stay on top of things!) Most of what you’ll delete will be inapplicable office memos and meeting invites and there is simply no reason to allow them to stagnate. I’ll allow that it’s technically possible you’ll toss something useful in the purge, but that is, in my view, a minor risk we’re embracing in favor of a new, organized way of life. Besides, you know an important email when you see it, and that’s why you’ve opened them all already. I believe in your judgment on this. You should too.
When your work inbox is done, do your personal inbox. I should also say here, where things are usually less urgent and more sentimental, that I love a good Gmail label, and when I count what’s in my main inbox I am not including all the crap lodged in my various rainbow colored folders. This is, admittedly, the cleaning-by-shoving-under-the-bed kind of inbox organization, but I’m still reading those emails first. Folders get those slightly-less-important but still keep-worthy emails out of your everyday line of sight, and that’s what counts for your sanity.
I hate to mention this, because it’s the easy way out, but you could also just mark all your unread emails as read. This is absolutely cheating, don’t get me wrong, but it may lift enough weight from your shoulders that you’ll start deleting more responsibly in the future.
I should also say: the reason Inbox Zero is easy for me (beyond the generally uptight personality which makes me so desired at social events) is that I started doing it from the outset. My inboxes have never known another way. So if you want an Inbox Zero shortcut, perhaps the best way is to just … get a new email address. Quit your job, and get a new one, where nobody has emailed you yet. Begin your life as the sort of person who clicks every email the instant it arrives in order to preserve your sense of control. It feels great, honestly.