Achieving Inbox Zero in Gmail

Love or hate email, it's pretty much here to stay. While it's the preferred medium of communication for business, you don't need to become a slave to your inbox.

In this blog post, we're sharing our 4-step approach to achieving Inbox Zero in Gmail.

We'll help you determine when your prime email time should be, share how to prioritize your emails, provide tips on preventing your inbox from receiving unwanted email, and how to use labels in Gmail to streamline your inbox.

But before we dig into these four tips, what is "Inbox Zero" anyway?

Inbox Zero is a term coined by Merlin Mann. Mann, a productivity expert, created Inbox Zero as a way to keep his email inbox empty at all times.

Here's a look at the broad strokes of Mann's approach:

  • Only open your email client when you're attending to email (at a specified time)
  • Attend to email periodically throughout the day. Here, Mann recommends the top of each hour.
  • Delete and/or archive as many new emails as possible.
  • Pass along emails to a team member who is best equipped to handle the issue.
  • Immediately reply to new emails you can deal with in under two minutes.
  • Create folders for emails that can be replied to in under two minutes and those that need more attention
  • Dedicate time daily to clearing out all emails that need more than two minutes to reply to.

While these guidelines seem relatively straightforward, grey areas begin to appear as you try to apply each rule.

For example, what if you're a busy person and spend your days in meetings. Attending to email at the top of each hour becomes a little challenging. How and when should you get to email?

And, how do you prevent unwanted emails from entering your inbox, especially if you don't have the time to create complex filters in Gmail?

A Flexible Approach to Inbox Zero for Gmail

Gmail's likely one of the most amazing, yet unsung heroes of modern business operations. It makes it possible to do more at less of a cost, especially when paired with the rest of Google's Business Suite.

But as you become more reliant on Gmail, you experience many of the same challenges that you would with other email clients.

Spam is still an issue.

You need to be smart about managing your email labels (think folders in Outlook).

You also need to know how to create rules and filters to control what shows up in your inbox.

In our Inbox Zero approach, we'll help you tackle these issues and more.

Step One: Establish Your Email Routine

While clearing your inbox at the top of each hour may make for a highly productive day, it may not be possible. Your schedule may not allow it.

How do you establish your routine?

Here are a series of questions to help you find yours:

Can you block out time slots in your calendar?

Blocking out time will allow you to focus specifically on email. You'll need to accommodate the easy-to-reply-to and the more complex emails.

How much time can you easily spare each day?

30 minutes? 1 hour? As you look at your calendar and think about your daily schedule, consider when you'd be able to commit to email.

You want to develop a habit of attending to email at a specific time daily. Committing to a set time will help rid you of the impulse to check email sporadically, allowing you to focus on other responsibilities and not be tied down by email.

When are you most focused in your day?

Are you a morning person? Do you get more done in the afternoon? Are you able to get more email done in the evening?

If you deal with more complex emails in the evening, can your emails wait that long to be attended to?

Step Two: Prioritize Email

Email, according to Mann, comes in two forms. You get easy-to-respond-to and complex emails.

The trick to determining which emails are easy and complex is understanding what they both look like.

Easy emails can be replied to in less than two minutes. These emails usually come in the form of:

  • Simple questions people need answers to
  • Direction or instruction requests
  • Information requirements
  • Approvals
  • Feedback you can provide without batting an eye

Complex emails take longer to address. These types of emails typically:

  • Require research or data to provide a reply
  • Need expertise and insight to be shared with clear explanations and detail

Pro Tip: If an email requires an in-depth response, consider picking up the phone and having a conversation. It will be more fruitful to exchange ideas in real-time and be more productive than saving a lengthy email reply for later in your day.

Step Three: Assign Emails Using Gmail Labels

Most people equate Gmail labels to folders in Outlook, but they are different. Labels were designed as a way to tag different emails you receive. Tagging emails makes it easier to group them for easy retrieval or management.

Unlike folders in Outlook, deleting a label doesn't delete emails. Instead, your emails will stay in your inbox.

You're also able to assign multiple labels to an email where Outlook only allows storing one email in one folder.

This kind of flexibility makes Gmail labels useful as you implement Inbox Zero. Labels can be used to segment emails by priority. You can drag and drop emails on labels.

By moving emails to "easy" or "complex" labels, you'll clear your inbox and can begin to tackle each kind of email.

Step Four: Block Unwanted Emails with Block Sender

While it's hard to prevent spam, it's not the only reason why your inbox is filled with email. There's a good chance that you receive many legitimate emails because you're on an internal distribution list, for example.

It's also possible that you signed up for newsletters from a number of publications at one point, all of which seem to arrive in your inbox daily, if not weekly. And unfortunately some of these publications will eventually share/sell your email to third parties, causing you to receive even more unwanted mail.

So how do you manage these and other emails?

When we developed Block Sender, we wanted to streamline email management. We also wanted to give Gmail users the ability to quickly and easily take action and choose what happens to emails they receive.

Fact is, Gmail blocks some spam, but it can't catch everything from everyone. Spammers have evolved their techniques. And there is a lot of email out there that rightfully isn't considered spam by Gmail, but you don't want to receive it anyway.

To block these emails, filters are an option, but most Gmail users find them confusing to create and hard to manage, especially when you have many filters.

Block Sender is a Chrome Browser extension (also available for Firefox). Once installed, you're able to use it to block any email you choose, all using the extra UI features our plugin provides to Gmail.

You can block emails by:

  • Name
  • Email address
  • Website and domain
  • Domain extension
  • Keyword
  • Subject
  • Phrase
  • IP address

Blocking unwanted email will immediately decrease the amount of email you receive, making it easier to focus on what really matters in your inbox.

You're also able to choose what happens to your emails. You can send them to your archive folder or straight to trash. And if you're being spammed and want to put an end to it, you can use a bounce-back email that is sent to the sender.

Bounce-back emails include a text-based reply notifying the sender that your email address is not active or that their emails cannot get through. These are also great for anyone harassing you via email.


Inbox Zero is a systematic approach to managing email. It includes setting time to attend to email, understanding the difference between easy-to-reply-to and complex and when to respond to both. It also involves keeping your inbox clean by preventing unwanted emails and using Gmail labels to prioritize emails.

Using these 4 steps can make email management simpler. They are designed to be flexible enough to fit any work schedule, making it easier to keep your inbox clean and have productive and fulfilling work weeks.

Last Updated: June 12th, 2023
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