An overflowing inbox. Distracting notifications all day long. The urgent burying the important.
Most of us have an inbox that looks like this. It's stressful. It's disorganized. And it’s holding us back, letting our team down, and causing us to miss important opportunities.
What if your inbox looked like this every day:
Feels much calmer, doesn’t it? This is what Inbox Zero looks like.
In this guide, we’ll cover the Inbox Zero Method from A-Z:
Table of Contents:
The best part? You’ll learn how to Inbox Zero in just ~15 minutes each day. We'll also cover some helpful Gmail and Outlook tips to help you get there.
We’ll use Superhuman to hit inbox zero:
Using Superhuman isn’t necessary, but it’ll help. Inbox Zero principles apply to all kinds of email clients.
If you want to be more productive, or if the number of unread emails in your inbox makes you anxious, this guide is for you.
Before we dive in, let’s start with the basics.
What is the Inbox Zero method?
Coined by productivity expert Merlin Mann, Inbox Zero is an email management strategy aimed at keeping your inbox empty. Or as empty as possible, at all times.
The goal: triage your inbox quickly to reduce clutter and manage emails effectively.
The "Zero" in "Inbox Zero" doesn't refer to the number of emails in your inbox. It refers to "the amount of time an employee’s brain is in his inbox," according to Mann.
What's important about Inbox Zero isn't the method used to achieve it. But the end result.
No more anxiety about unread messages. Better time management. The freeom to work without distractions. Never missing important emails because of a cluttered inbox. Ever.
Is a Zero Inbox worth pursuing?
Short answer: Yes. Anyone can benefit from better email management.
The average person gets 100-120 emails per day. And this number keeps growing.
Plus, we now have multiple inboxes. Email, Slack, Social media, Whatsapp chats, etc. All buzzing with notifications. All begging for our attention:
Achieving Inbox Zero is about more than having an empty inbox.
When the pandemic began, millions of us went to work from home. And stayed there.
We assumed our kids, pets, or the fridge would be our biggest distractors. Turns out, work communications were the major distraction for remote workers.
The biggest culprit: Email.
In fact: 22% of remote workers want to quit their job simply because they get too many emails!
This is a real catch-22. On one hand, remote teams rely on email to keep everyone up to speed. But the more email we receive, the more distracted we get!
Inbox Zero isn’t a buzzword. It’s a practical approach that’ll help you reduce distractions, get organized, and stay on top of email. So you spend less time in your inbox, and more time focusing on work that matters.
“It takes far, far less time and energy to maintain your email inbox at zero than at a thousand.” – Tiago Forte, Author of Building a Second Brain.
Bottom line: If you struggle to manage large volumes of email, Inbox Zero method will help you end email overload (once and for all).
How to Inbox Zero? A simple 4-step guide
When Merlin Mann created the Inbox Zero Method, his main goal was to stop using email as a to-do list. To do this, he identified 4 possible actions he could take for incoming messages:
The real beauty of Inbox Zero comes when you understand what it really means. It's not purely about the quantitative goal: zero emails.
It's reframing how you think about email. By efficiently prioritizing incoming emails as they arrive: archiving, replying, snoozing, or archiving.
In simple terms: touch every email once.
Here’s a handy flowchart to summarize this Inbox Zero method guide:
Time for the best part: hitting inbox zero in the next 15 mins.
Is this possible? Absolutely.
"You probably can take the average email inbox -- even a relatively neglected one -- from full to zero in ~20 minutes" – Merlin Mann
There is some work required upfront. But it’s worth it.
Follow these steps and you’ll spend just ~15 minutes in your inbox:
1) Delete it
The journey to inbox zero starts by deleting certain emails. This will help you quickly declutter your inbox. So you’ll be left with the important stuff.
How do you decide which emails to delete? Two questions:
- Does this email require any action from you?
- Does it contain information you might need later?
If the answer to both questions is no, delete or archive the email right away.
For newsletters subscriptions you haven’t read in weeks (or months) or email promotions you don’t recall signing up for – Unsubscribe. Ruthlessly.
In Gmail, you can click unsubscribe right next to the sender:
Or at the bottom of most emails:
This will take some time. But unsubscribing now = fewer emails later.
On Superhuman, unsubscribing is FAST. Simply type ⌘+U (Ctrl+U on Windows) or swipe down on mobile:
But what about their previous emails? They're still cluttering your inbox. You'd have to delete them manually.
Not anymore! Unsubscribe and delete all related emails – in one go:
Gmail's spam filter is great, but it’ll still let the occasional spam email through. Emails you can’t unsubscribe from.
In that case, you can block them forever instead! Hit ⌘+K (Ctrl+K on Windows), and type "block":
Block specific emails or entire domains. Go ahead, you know you want to.
If you ever want to unblock someone, hit ⌘+K and enter "blocked senders".
On Gmail, click on the 3 dots next to an email, and hit block “X”:
Note: Gmail doesn't let you block entire domains. Nor does it trash all previous email from the sender you blocked (yet).
Viola! You just got rid of 85% of emails clogging up your inbox.
Optional Reading: How to Delete all Emails on Gmail (in Minutes, not Hours).
2) Delegate it
To identify which emails to delegate, ask yourself:
- Are you the correct person to address the ask in this email?
- Can someone else on your team reply more effectively than you?
If yes, forward the email to the right person. Next, archive or delete.
It’s that simple.
3) Defer it
For most emails, you need time to think. Or you’re waiting on a colleague. Or you simply want to take care of it later!
- Will you need more time to reply to this email — either because you need to follow up on a different day, type a detailed response, or find files to attach?
- Does it contain information you may need to refer back to later?
If the answer to either question is yes: file this email in a separate folder, label it, or snooze it so you can return to it later.
Some people swear by folders and labels to categorize emails. But manually filing emails manually wastes a lot of time. As much as 11 minutes per day.
So we don’t use folders:
We recommend snoozing emails instead. This alone will easily save you ~1 hour each week:
To snooze an email, just hit H. Enter a time — say next week — and you’ll be reminded then.
Can't deal with an email on your phone? Tap “on desktop”, and we'll remind you when you open Superhuman on your desktop.
Focus on what matters, and enjoy a more productive inbox!
Gmail and Outlook both offer a “Snooze” feature. On Gmail, click on the 🕔 icon:
Use Outlook? Head to your inbox. Select an email and click on snooze. Pick a time and date:
NOTE: Outlook Desktop doesn’t have a snooze feature yet. You can only snooze emails on Web or Mobile. Looking to switch? Here are 8 Outlook alternatives.
4) Do it
We’re almost done!
For every remaining email in your inbox, take one of the following actions:
For emails that need a reply, ask yourself:
- Are you the right person to hit reply?
- Can you reply to the email quickly?
If you answered yes to both questions, hit reply. Next archive or delete it.
For emails that need action from you, convert them into a task.
Need to create a meeting? Add it to your calendar. To create an event in Superhuman, hit B. To add more details, hit ⌘+K:
Unlike the point-and-click calendars in Gmail or Outlook, Superhuman is keyboard-driven, blazingly fast, and very fun. 🙂
Scheduling emails to send later? Superhuman lets you send later by date, time, and across different time zones!
Quick Tip: Auto-Advance
When you triage in most email clients — e.g. Archive, Snooze, or Trash — you’re thrown back into your inbox. Not ideal if you want to process emails quickly.
To fix this, turn on auto-advance in Gmail:
On Superhuman, auto-advance is on by default. When you triage, you’ll immediately see the next email. This helps you focus, stay in the flow, and get through your inbox twice as fast:
The best part? You can customize auto-advance to work for you!
Say you want to start at the bottom of your Inbox. Or, you want to choose a conversation from your inbox every time.
Hit ⌘+K → "auto advance". On mobile, head to the settings in the app.
We recommend using Auto-Advance in either direction. It removes the cognitive load of deciding your next action, and increases throughput by 15% or more!
Remember: the goal is to spend as little time in your inbox as possible.
Which means the faster you reply to emails, the less time you’ll spend in your inbox. So I recommend adopting the 5-sentence rule:
Here are some additional inbox zero tips:
- If an email will take <2 minutes to reply to, do it right away.
- Schedule time to check email. An email schedule is critical.
- Turn off email notifications so you’re not constantly distracted.
- Use an email management software for high-volume inboxes.
- Write better emails to reduce needless back-and-forths.
3 (bonus) email management tips
Bonus Tip #1: Keyboard Shortcuts
Want to fly through your inbox? Ditch the mouse.
When it comes to keyboard vs mouse, your mouse can only go so fast. In most interactions, you'll be faster if you use keyboard shortcuts instead.
Here’s how to turn them on in Gmail:
- On a computer, go to Gmail.
- In the top right, click Settings > See all settings.
- Head to "Keyboard shortcuts" on the far right.
- Turn Keyboard shortcuts on.
- At the bottom of the page, click Save Changes.
Done! Head back to your inbox. Hit C to compose a new email:
Wasn’t that fast?
Here are a few more to get you started:
- Reply: R
- Reply-all: A
- Forward: F
- Archive: E
- Send: ⌘+Enter
If you use Microsoft Outlook, here’s the full list of keyboard shortcuts.
There is a small learning curve. But if you master these basic keyboard shortcuts, you’ll be FAST. You can also customize shortcuts as you see fit!
If you’re a Superhuman user, shortcuts are enabled by default. Simply hit ? to see a full list:
Looking for a particular shortcut? Type to rapidly search the list!
Optional Reading: The Gmail shortcuts you should actually be using
Bonus Tip #2: Split Inbox
The harsh reality: We all get too much email!
The urgent buries the important. We don't reply to our team or VIPs. We miss notifications from tools like Google Docs.
As a result, we lose opportunities. Or worse, we let down the people who count on us.
Not anymore! With Split Inbox, you can focus on what matters:
With Split Inbox, you can:
- Quickly get to the messages that matter most.
- Experience fewer context switches and stay in flow longer.
- Achieve Inbox Zero in specific splits.
Split Inbox is especially powerful if you get a high volume of emails. For such inboxes, it’s quite difficult to hit inbox zero in one go.
Split emails from your team. Or from VIPs. Or your most used tools — Trello, GitHub, Asana, Google Docs — you name it.
- To create Team and VIP splits, hit ⌘+K → "split settings"
- To split out a tool like Google Docs, hit ⌘+K → "split" on any Google Docs email
Even if your inbox is overflowing, you'll respond faster to the people who need you!
Gmail offers Priority Inbox. It's not as powerful, but still useful. Turn it on:
- On your desktop, go to Gmail.
- Go to the top right, then click Settings.
- In the "Inbox type" section, select Priority Inbox.
- To customize your priority inbox, click Customize.
- Choose the inbox sections you want to show > Save Changes.
And you’re done:
Sidenote: Gmail decides which emails are important (and not). If you’re looking for a switch, check out these Gmail alternatives.
Bonus Tip #3: Snippets
At Superhuman, we set out to build the fastest email experience ever. Which is why every interaction is 100ms or less. ⚡
But we all hit the same limit: the sheer time it takes to type.
Snippets help you automate typing and push past your limit. Add phrases, paragraphs, or entire emails. All with a few clicks or keystrokes!
The best part? You can also include attachments or add people to CC:
Productivity expert Ali Abdaal loves snippets:
I can automate phrases and entire emails. I type pretty fast (~150+ WPM), but snippets allow me to insert whole phrases, paragraphs, and emails at a click of a button. This literally saves hours every week.
To create a Snippet on Desktop, hit ⌘+K > "Create Snippet". You can reuse these snippets on Superhuman for Mobile.
Not a Superhuman user? TextExpander is a great option. Plus, it works across Mac, Windows, Android, and iOS! Try it out. 😉
Superhuman = a Clean Inbox 🤩
And we're done! Hopefully, you hit inbox zero by now (or getting close).
The goal isn’t to maintain a “0 inbox” at all times. It’s to spend less time in your inbox. So if (and when) you do fall short, remember even the best of us do sometimes. 😉
Here’s a quick recap:
- Delete: Archive or delete emails you don’t need. Unsubscribe from junk mail or newsletters you don't read.
- Delegate: Not the right person to respond to an email? Forward it to someone who is.
- Defer: For emails you need to follow up on (or read later), hit snooze till the right time!
- Do: Reply to emails in batches. Follow the 3-21-0 Method for best results.
Hitting Inbox Zero differs for everyone. We all have unique inbox setups and workflows. So it’s tough to create a one-size-fits-all Inbox Zero guide.
But I hope these Inbox Zero best practices help you feel less anxious, be more productive, and (finally) end email overload!
Questions? Ping us on Twitter.