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In The Other Side of Organized, Linda Samuels, CPO-CD® will encourage you to get organized enough to reduce the stress of life’s details and make time to embrace your passions. Already, thousands of clients and readers have found help and inspiration in her advice, personal reflections on change and connection, and vision of what can be accomplished when you find that sweet spot between chaos and perfection.

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« What Are Today's Interesting Finds? - v17 | Tremendous Gratitude for a Simple New Year's Fresh Start »

How to Get a Fresh Start Boost from Inbox Zero

If you’re anything like me, you might be thinking, “There’s no possible way I’ll ever get to inbox zero.”  Over the years I’ve read tons of articles, books and even attended seminars with advice about the value of having zero emails in your inbox. I’ve commented on many posts about how “I have great admiration for your ability to get to zero and would love to do it myself, but don’t see how I can realistically get there…ever!” I’ve imagined how it might feel to be unencumbered by old emails and an inbox that felt more like a “to do someday list.”

While I haven’t set all of my 2018 goals in motion, or even decided what they will be, one of the goals I committed to this year was my project “inbox zero.” I wanted a fresh start and clean slate to grow from. With this new goal of “zero” in mind, I was curious if it was possible for me to achieve. I also wondered how to make it happen.

So I set a simple plan in motion. I remembered some of the advice I learned and it helped me to create a doable plan. Using the breaking-down-large-projects-into-small-parts thought process, I set up a few basic rules.


Linda’s Rules for Project Inbox Zero:

Set a completion date. I opted to have this done by January 1st. Guess what? That didn’t happen, but it did happen a week later. It’s good to remember that deadlines are great motivators, but be flexible. As it turns out, I needed that extra time to complete my goal. And if I needed more time, I would have made another adjustment.


Create some parameters. With hundreds of emails and decisions to process, I knew that I’d need more than a day to get through them. I used small time blocks each day to process the old emails while keeping up with the new emails. The beauty of doing a little bit each day was that decision-making wasn’t overwhelming. If I experienced decision fatigue, I stopped. I aimed for progress, not completion. That kept me motivated and ready for the next email session.


Establish the “dump” buckets. That may seem like an odd term, but it’s what it felt like. As I reviewed each email, I decided which “bucket” to “dump” the email or information into. My favorite bucket was the trash. If the email was no longer relevant, I let it go. Another bucket was my “to do” list. Anything that required action or follow-up got assigned a date on my list to review later. A third bucket was contacts. Some emails required transferring stats or information to my contact system. The other types of emails related to current or past projects. Those went into archive buckets. These archives are digital folders with specific project or topic category names.


Be Realistic. The hardest emails to decide about were the ones that I hoped to have done something with someday, but hadn’t. I used the “how long I’ve been ignoring this email factor” as my indicator for determining the likelihood of ever attending to that thing. In most cases, those emails ended up in the “trash” bucket. A few were archived or added to my to do list. However, before they were kept, I tried to be as realistic as possible. The point of achieving inbox zero wasn’t just to empty the box, but also to make realistic assessments about the contents.


Do it now. Some emails required more immediate action, like signing up for ICD’s new teleclasses. The time needed to complete those tasks was minimal. However, once the task was completed, the email could be deleted. So any quick action emails I opted to handle right away rather than adding them to my to do list.


As you’ve figured out by now, with these simple rules in place, within a few weeks, I got through hundreds of emails, routed them to their buckets, and have arrived at inbox zero. It’s a little strange to see my empty inbox. It looks kind of lonely. I’m still expecting hundreds of messages every time I open the program. Along with the strangeness, I do feel liberated with a positive feeling that fresh starts often bring. There’s a certain clarity and focus with being able to attend to the few new ones that pop in.

I’m looking forward to other types of letting go in the coming months. There are papers to shred, files to clear out, and general “stuff” to release. Emails were just the beginning.

What is your relationship to your inbox? Have you struggled with managing email? What works or doesn't work for you? What has your experience been with inbox zero or fresh starts for this year? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Come join the conversation!





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Reader Comments (14)

I keep pretty tight reins on my inbox - in fact, I get antsy if there are over 10 messages in it.

I basically follow the 4-D system:
- DELETE if no action is required
- DELEGATE if I can pass it on to someone else
- DO if it will take under 10 minutes.
- DEFER - if it will take longer, add it to task list and assign a date to it. OR use Boomerang to bring it back to my inbox at a later, more appropriate date.

January 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJanet Barclay

@Janet- Wow! This looks like a great "inbox zero" maintenance strategy in addition to it being a great way to achieve those low numbers in the first place. I understand the "antsy" part. Now that my inbox got to zero, I find it easier (and actually compelled) to keep it there. I've heard Boomerang mentioned by several people and it seems to be a program people really like. I haven't tried it.

January 8, 2018 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

What a great topic for the new year! I don't have a zero inbox, but it is close. I have folders I've set up, and i use them to "store" information that I don't want to let go of. The items in the generic inbox are basically emails that are pending, such as ticket details for an upcoming trip, or tickets for an event next month. I allow these to stay in my inbox until they are no longer relevant, then I go back and delete. I also have a couple of different email systems that I use, and I actually enjoy this because it allows me to separate work from personal life. I love your note about decision fatigue, and allowing yourself to "break" when this happens. Anything that we expect to be dreadful is something we are likely to avoid, so take it in small, palatable bites!

January 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSeana Turner

@Seana- It sounds like you've got a great email management system that works effectively for you. That's what it's all about. You make a good point about allowing relevant email to remain in your inbox that is event or trip-related. That makes a lot of sense. In fact, in my effort to get to zero, I opted to file something from an upcoming trip rather than keep it in the inbox. It's possible that I shouldn't have done that. This is a learning experiment and work in progress.

January 8, 2018 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Way to go Linda!
And tgank you for sharing your story and your strategies.
You made so many excellent points!

In my own path toward managing my inbox, there are two key discoveries that I find particularly encouraging.
1. The search function is powerful, and virtually eliminates the need for me to "file" emails I want to save. Relying on search saves me a lot of time, and so far, has not let me down.
2. For me, the goal is WHITE SPACE at the bottom of the screen, under some emails. My inbox feels like my desktop, and I function best with a limited amount of current work in front of my eyes. The white space ensures the limit of the visible collection. It leaves me feeling in control.

I look forward to re-reading your blog, and more comments!

January 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAlison Lush, CPO-CD, CPO

That is awesome that you reached zero emails, Linda. Congratulations!

Prioritizing my current emails works best for me. In Outlook, I use the Categories feature. This feature allows me to categorize my current emails right in me inbox window. Since I work with several different companies and have to wait for responses to the different activities, each category is called the company name or the action name. If it wasn't in a group, I knew it was something I needed to do on that day. At the end of each day, I make sure all my emails are assigned to each group or are removed altogether into a long-term client email folder if I need it.

At the end of each year, I revisit the categories that are used and make a decision. Do I still want to do this? Or does it need to be "closed" or finished in my mind? I did this task on December 31st and when January rolled around it was very freeing to know that I got a chance to visit the emails that I didn't read or take action on for a while.

January 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSabrina Quairoli

Great goal and great post. I especially love your first point about moving your completion date if you haven't met your goal. Often people fail to meet a deadline they've set for themselves and give up altogether. It's important to keep at it. :)

January 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSheri Steed

I am nowhere near inbox zero. But I like the idea of dump buckets. I’m getting ready have a brand new email address with my new website. I should start fresh with buckets! I also like the 2 minute rule. If I can answer an email in 2 minutes or less, do it now.

January 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndi Willis

@Alison- You make such a great point about using the search feature as a way of eliminating that filing time. I use that search feature, but I still like to file certain emails. The point, of course, is to have a system that works for you and you've clearly figured that out. Kudos to you for streamlining your email management process!

@Sabrina- Thanks so much. I'm still enjoying the white space. And having zero as a starting point makes it that much easier to keep up with the new emails that are coming in. I find that my decision-making is faster and I'm getting even more ruthless. It sounds like you've figured out how to maximize Outlook and use it to your advantage. You've also built in an annual "organizing" of your emails to review, decide and clear out what's no longer of interest. That's wonderful! And how nice that you've started the year with a clean slate.

January 8, 2018 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

@Sheri- So happy to have you with us! You're right that we can often give up if we don't hit our original goal. But with all things that we're working towards, the road isn't always a straight trajectory. So being flexible helps to ultimately achieve what you want.

@Andi- I've been reading about your new website launch. Congratulations! And's an opportunity to start with "fresh with buckets!" Inbox zero isn't a goal for everyone, and again, I never thought I'd get there. This year was my time. As this is brand new for me, I'm going to see how it goes and whether I'll be able to maintain it. Wishing you all the best with your launch!

January 8, 2018 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Such great tips and ideas! I especially like the one about being realistic! So many times we start of the new year with lofty ideas, only to burn out rather quickly. Can't wait to share with my audience!

January 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLiana George

@Liana- So happy that you stopped by to join the conversation. Ahhh...the "lofty" ideas. It's great to dream big, but it's true that at times we can burn out quickly. So adding a dose of reality into the equation can make a big difference in terms of sticking to something. Thank you for sharing with your readers. You're the best!

January 9, 2018 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Is it bad that I don't do inbox zero? =O I still unsubscribe from e-mails and delete/archive messages. Gmail also helps by asking me if I want to unsubscribe if I haven't opened an e-mail from a specific sender in a while. Some senders automatically remove me from their list if I haven't opened their e-mails in three months (love that). Gmail also automatically categorizes and groups e-mails (big help).

... but, I no longer specifically set aside time to clean out my inbox to get to zero. I used to aim for 10 or fewer messages but that took quite a bit of time.

What's most important to me is finding the particular e-mail I'm looking for. When I need to find specific messages, I do a keyword search or clip them to a related project folder in Evernote. I find that doing this saves time and is a little easier on my brain. =)

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDeb Lee

@Deb- No value judgment here. Inbox zero isn't everyone's goal. And what's most important is that you find an email management system that works for you. It sounds like Gmail gives you many options for supporting how you like to manage things in a time efficient, accessible way. And ultimately, that's what it's about. For me, since I don't use Gmail and have a fairly basic email system, that inbox being empty is really important for me. But again, that's just me. Thanks for sharing your views on NOT having that zero goal.I'm sure others are hooting and hollering in agreement.

January 10, 2018 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

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