How to Use Inbox Zero Reclaim Your Life


In this article I cover how to use Inbox Zero to reclaim your life while increasing your productivity at work or home through the proper management of your email inbox.

What is Inbox Zero?

It is a superficial achievement and a productivity benchmark in which your inbox contains no remaining emails to respond to because they have already been processed and completed.

The phrase was originally coined by Merlin Mann years ago and he defined it as reclaiming your email, your attention, and your life.


“It’s not how many messages are in your inbox – it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be.” – Merlin Mann


Think of the time wasted when you open your email inbox and all those looming email messages, that require your attention, peer back out at you.

How does that make you feel? Are you wasting even more time by worrying over them? Rest assured, they are sucking your life and time and you haven’t even started working on them.

This article is subjective, from the prospective of a professional freelance web developer and technology consultant who utilizes this productivity benchmark with successful results with Gmail. Your results may vary and the concept discussed herein may not be applicable to you.


Inbox Zero Award

Inbox Zero is an award, albeit as hollow as the name implies, that may help provide you with that extra bit of incentive to, “just get it done“. There is no physical or digital award you receive. Just an empty inbox.

The true benefit is conceptually counter intuitive since you achieve more free time and have less anxiety every single day. One may be thinking, “What if a client emails me at 2am? Do I have to immediately respond? Won’t my clients start to expect too much from me?

No, that is not what I am saying and that is not what the Inbox Zero productivity benchmark is all about.

Rather, if you open your email inbox and an email appears you access that email once and work to get it done. If you are not ready to work, you don’t open your email inbox! No message is “saved for later“, if it arrives you begin working on it. That is in an ideal case. Most times you will have multiple emails to run through in order to prioritize them.

Be sure to inform your clients how and when you work, let them know what they can expect from you early on in your business relationship.

If you were wondering what achieving Inbox Zero looks like on the Gmail Android App see the screenshots below.

Gmail Inbox Zero

Outlook Inbox Zero

Other Benefits of Inbox Zero

I’ve personally disabled all email notifications on my smart phone and desktop computer. This has effectively reclaimed and focused my attention to and on my work. When I’m ready to work, I work and do so without interruption. One and done!

I’ve taken this approach to my billing as well. If I receive a bill pay notice, I pay it right then and there deducting the full amount that very day. No delay, no scheduling for a later date. Think of all the potential issues I have avoided and time saved doing it this way, rather than delaying and working out payment schedules and so on.

As a WordPress freelancer it has helped me overcome my occasional procrastination. Okay, it was more frequent than that. My excuse was that not all projects or work requests were new and exciting. I would put those off until I’ve had enough coffee or the client emails me a request for an update.

Thanks to my working towards achieving Inbox Zero every day, I no longer procrastinate because my main objective is to have an empty inbox which supersedes all excuses. To be clear, I almost seldom achieve this goal, but it is the pursuit that makes me so productive.

Set Client Expectations

If you are a freelance web developer, like me, or someone with a client base and want to give Inbox Zero a try, be sure to inform your client’s what they can expect from you early on. Tell them that you practice Inbox Zero.

They don’t need to fully understand it or practice it themselves. Rather, let them know that you have business hours and if they don’t get a response from you it is because you are working on their request.

Inform them that any subsequent follow up emails will only delay their project and that of your other clients. Make it a point to remind them of this. Don’t be afraid to do so, in my experience they will respect you for it. The rare ones that don’t, you might not want as clients.

Again, be sure to have properly set expectations early on.

Improved Client Satisfaction

Without a doubt, all of my clients love how responsive and how quickly I am able to complete their requests. They frequently worry that I don’t take time off. It’s completely the opposite! I have more free time now than before Inbox Zero. Just look at my blog on this web site. This article, on Inbox Zero, is a result of my free time obtained from implementing the concept of Inbox Zero.

Because of my newfound free time to post to my blog my web site traffic, since January of 2019, has increased dramatically and so has my business! I finally have time to perform search engine optimization on my own web site which will increase my click through rate (CTR) and average position. After all, how I can offer search engine optimization services if I don’t do it on my own web site?

What Inbox Zero is NOT

Inbox Zero is not the end all be all nor am I claiming it to be the best time management technique. Like most things in life, it is all relative.

For a freelancing web designer, such as myself, whose inbox is for non-personal and business use only it has led to a huge improvement in my productivity as well as increased client satisfaction. But just because it works for me, I am aware that it may not work for you.

There is no shortage of Inbox Zero critics, which is fine. Some claim that with Inbox Zero you lose control of how you spend your time, that you let others “control you“. Again, it is relative. My inbox is my work, so if I am working for my clients and being compensated, I don’t see the issue.

If I worked as an employee at a corporation and was dealing with internal operations and co-workers, then I partly agree. But you would still have free will to prioritize your day.

Tips for Achieving Inbox Zero

In case you are interested in giving this concept a try, below are a few tips or suggestions that I would recommend. Here is wishing you great success and increased productivity!

Prioritize Your Email

You will need to be able to prioritize your emails appropriately. The better you do this the more productive you will be.

If there are multiple emails in my inbox I will either scan or read them all and prioritize them accordingly. I mainly start with the email work order requests that can be implemented the quickest. Why? Because the client would most likely and correctly assume that the request is simple. Thus, a prompt notice of completion would meet their expectations resulting in a satisfied client.

Email work orders which require more time also require proper client communications in order to set their expectations properly.

I also usually make a mental note of my emails using the following prioritization matrix.

Inbox Zero Email Prioritization Matrix

There are some red flags that I look out for when prioritizing my emails. When a client tells me, “No rush.” or “When you get a chance.” These all have an expiration date in the mind of my client and it’s almost always a much shorter timeframe than mine. Thus, proper client communications are required with these individuals to ensure I match their expectations thus avoiding any potential conflicts.

Those who tell me, “I know this will take some time.” aren’t much different. They are simply, and unconsciously, attempting to alleviate any stress to obtain a timelier completion of their work order request. I don’t blame them and appreciate that consideration. But I also know that they wanted it done yesterday.

Remember, proper prioritization and client communication are key. I don’t always get these just right but as time goes on, I’ve gotten better at it.

Keep Your Emails Short

Free up time, stay productive while improving how you communicate.

Make sure your emails and replies contain no more than 5 sentences. This concept was popularized by Guy Kawasaki which involves answering a few simple questions.

  1. Who are you?
  2. What do you want?
  3. Why are you asking me?
  4. Why should I do what you’re asking?
  5. What is the next step?

Mr. Kawasaki says, “This is all an intelligent person needs to know to make a decision.” Be sure to leave out all the extra details most people will overlook them anyway and it makes overlooking important information more likely. Alternatively, you can use the template below to help get work done.

Q: This is the original question?
A: This is the short answer reply.

Utilizing Folders or Labels

Should you be using folders or labels for your email? Not if you want to be productive.

You wouldn’t want to simply be blindly archiving your emails or filtering them into folders or labels. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Adding additional steps such as creating, organizing and managing folders or labels just gives you another item to mentally process. You say you won’t, good luck with that.

I’ve personally seen clients with hundreds of folders when providing them with computer support services in Naples. I have seen them accidentally drag and drop a folder into another folder and emails into the wrong folder. Then they wonder why they can’t find a particular email and so on. Think of all the time you will save if you learn how to properly utilize the search feature in your mail client to filter down to the message(s) you need? This tip alone might be a game changer for you even without Inbox Zero.

Send and Archive

Saving steps speeds everything up.

Since I don’t use any additional folders or labels to categorize my emails (not needed if you know how to use the Gmail search feature) I basically have my “Inbox” and “All Mail” visible. Utilizing the “Send and archive” feature available within Gmail Settings, when I reply to an email, I simultaneously archive it which removes it from my inbox.

Snooze an Email

Should you snooze an email for later? No, don’t do it.

Within Gmail there is an option to “Snooze” an email. Some time ago I give it a try and found myself having to keep snoozing the same messages repeatedly. This brought back the old days of my Microsoft Outlook program where I was having to constantly “Dismiss” various reminder notifications. What a nightmare that was! Talk about losing control of your time and life.


I welcome your thoughts, questions, or suggestions on my article regarding using Inbox Zero and time utilization techniques for improving your productivity. Perhaps you’ll give achieving Inbox Zero a try? If so, I hope it benefits you as much as it has benefited me by reclaiming control over my email, my attention, and my life as Merlin Mann stated.

You may support my work by sending me a tip using your Brave browser or by sending me a one time donation using your credit card.

Let me know if you found any errors within my article or if I may further assist you by answering any additional questions you may have.