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Email is a real pain. Most of us have multiple email accounts. The inbox can easily pile up with junk, often resulting in important email getting lost or forgotten. For many, inbox zero is nothing but a pipe dream.

This hit home for me recently.  I have four primary email accounts that I monitor.  One is for work, two are for this site, and one is a personal account.  When I started the Dough Roller Money Podcast, I gave out my email and encouraged listeners to write in with questions or comments.  The good news is that I’ve received literally thousands of email from folks.  The bad news is that I’ve received literally thousands of email from folks.

My primary Dough Roller email account regularly had 300 to 500 email.  It was taking me more than a month to respond to email.  Something had to be done.

I researched both strategies and tools to help me manage my inbox.  This article and podcast cover both the strategy that I’ve found to be effective and some of the tools that have helped me along the way.

Two-Part Problem

Tackling email presents a two part problem:

  1. What do you do with the hundreds (or thousands) of email currently in your inbox
  2. Once you get to inbox Zero, how do you stay there

Getting to Inbox Zero

There’s an old saying in the banking industry that goes like this–If you owe the bank $1 million it’s your problem; if you owe the bank $1 billion it’s the bank’s problem.  Email is the same way.

There’s a big difference between dealing with an inbox with a few hundred emails versus one with thousands of emails.  We’ll look at both situations

Hundreds of Email:  This is what I was facing with my Dough Roller email.  I quickly concluded that I need to look at each email, responding to many of them.  It was going to be hard work, so I took the following approach:

  1. Work in Stages: Just like my productivity tips for those that work at home, I tackled my email in blocks of time.  I would set aside 30 minutes to work on the email, starting with the oldest message and working forward.
  2. Unsubscribe: I unsubscribed to almost every email that was part of a subscription. I probably kept one in ten.  It takes a few extra seconds to unsubscribe, but it means a lot less email to deal with in the future.
  3. Delete: Responding to email is time-consuming.  While some email warrant a response, many do not.  If I didn’t need to respond, I didn’t.

This simple process got me from several hundred email to inbox zero in about a week.

Thousands of Email:  For those with thousands (or tens of thousands) of email, such a conventional approach may not work.  For these situations I use the nuclear option:

  1. Archive:  Archive all email older than two weeks.  You can of course pick a different cutoff, but two weeks has worked for me.  I archive the email in Gmail, but you could also simply move it to a folder.  The idea is to ignore this email, but have it available via keyword search.
  2. Review Remaining Email:  Following the approach described above, work through the remaining email.

There are some tools that can really help regardless of how stuffed your inbox is.  We’ll look at those at the end of this article.

Staying at Inbox Zero

Getting to inbox zero is just half the battle.  Once you’ve arrived, you need to stay there.  Here’s how:

  1. Pick a Time: Deal with email one to three times a day. Dealing with email takes time. Checking email every 10 minutes will zap your productivity.  When I’m not checking my email during these set times, I often close out of it to avoid the temptation.
  2. One Touch: Touch each email only one. “Touching” includes reading. If you read it, deal with it.
  3. Unsubscribe: Continue to unsubscribe to email you don’t need. Consider a junk email address you rarely check for subscriptions and online purchases.
  4. Be Flexible: I don’t always get to inbox zero every single day.  Sometimes I’ll keep an email for a few days as a reminder of something important.

Email Tools

  1. Gmail:  Without question the best email service.  Gmail handles spam remarkably well and, as we’ll see below, there are many third-party add-ons to enhance Gmail’s functionality.
  2. Unroll.me:  A great service that does two things–(1) helps you easily unsubscribe to email services; and (2) takes the subscription emails you do want and rolls them up each day into a single email.
  3. Email Game:  This free tool is a great way to work through a lot of email.  It times your progress and let’s you batch process email in groups of 100.
  4. Boomerang:  This paid add-on has several helpful features including the ability to schedule an email to be sent later and to send an email out of your inbox and have it “boomerang” back in a set number of days.
  5. Search “Gmail Add Ons”:  In your favorite search engine look for Gmail Add Ons.  You’ll find hundreds of great tools that can help you better manage your inbox.

Additional Resources

Author Bio

Total Articles: 1083
Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Article comments

Christy says:

Hi Rob,

Great post! Might I suggest using FollowUp.cc for sorting through your email? I’m currently using it and I am twice as productive and efficient when it comes to emails. They also have a salesforce and evernote integration, which is great since I use both!

Rob Berger says:

Christy, thanks for the tip. I’ll check it out.