Why You Don’t Need an Empty Inbox

The phrase ‘Inbox Zero’ is a common goal in productivity and self-development circles these days. While I find unread emails in my inbox can cause anticipatory stress (and I’m not alone), I have no problem leaving opened emails sitting in my inbox. At the time of writing this, my personal email account has 19 302 emails sitting in the inbox.

I wasn’t always this way. In high school and my first couple of years of university, I was fastidious about filing my emails right after reading them. Then, in the spring of my second year (15 March 2009, according to the oldest email in my inbox), I got lazy, and stopped filing my emails.

The world didn’t end, my productivity didn’t plummet, and my grades didn’t drop. In fact, I find dealing with my inbox much easier now than it was back then, and it seems my experiences are borne out by science.

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Folders don’t make it faster to search

This is the primary reason I don’t bother filing my emails. The whole point of folders (or labels, if you’re using Gmail) is to make it faster to find what you’re looking for.

But if I want to find some family photos my mum sent me, I don’t open the ‘family’ or ‘pictures’ folder and scroll through until I find it. I type in my mum’s email address and the word ‘photos’ and find the pics in seconds.

I’m sure I used to use folders to find emails, but nowadays every email service and client has a search bar, and it’s faster to just type what I’m looking for and hit ENTER.

Folders require you to spend time organising initially

Besides being of unnecessary for finding emails, there’s the fact that filing your emails into folders in the first place takes time. Even with a service like Gmail, where you can set things up to automatically label incoming emails, you’ll still need to archive them manually after reading them.

Additionally, not all emails can be filtered automatically, so after reading an email you still often have to spend time deciding where to put it and manually putting it in a folder or labelling and archiving it.

At one point, I experimented with filtering blog newsletters by labelling them and archiving them, so they never cluttered up my inbox, but that meant I had to manually check for new emails. Considering I only sign up for blog newsletters when I really love the blog and want to be notified when there are new posts, having to manually check my ‘newsletters’ label somewhat defeats the purpose.

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What about things that require follow-up?

You might be reading along and thinking that what I’ve said so far is all very well for things that don’t require follow-up beyond any immediate response to the email. And it’s true that my email organisation system, or lack thereof, doesn’t feature anything beyond initially reading and, if necessary, responding to the email.

There’s a reason for that.

Filing emails away for follow-up requires you to go back and check the follow-up folder on a regular basis. You have to remember to do this, and then you have to go through all the emails in your follow-up folder to identify the ones you can address right now.

You’ll probably spend a lot of time reading through emails that you can’t follow up on yet for the same reason you filed them for follow-up in the first place: because they’re time-sensitive and that time is far in the future.

Long after I stopped filing emails as a matter of course, I continued to use the Star function to identify ones that needed my attention at a later date. However, I can’t even remember the last time I actually clicked on my Starred label.

Actually, that last bit’s a lie. I did it when I was drafting this post. I had dozens of emails in there stretching back months that I’d forgotten about.

Sometimes I use the star, not for emails that need followed up on, but those that I’ll need to refer to in future, like flight bookings. Again, however, I’m more likely to search ‘British Airways’ than click on the Starred label.

Rather than starring or filing away your emails that require follow-up or to be referenced in future (which is really just a form of procrastination), instead make note of the relevant information in your bullet journal or planner. This way all your tasks are organised in one place, and you don’t need to include ‘Check Starred label’. If you forget something or need to respond via email, you can always use the search bar to find the message in question.

Do folders have any use?

I’m bagging on folders, labels and filtering here, but the truth is, I don’t hate them. I just think they should be used with caution.

Gmail’s filtering function, for instance, is perfect for those emails you don’t need to read but may need for reference, like Amazon’s auto-confirm emails when you make a purchase. You know you just made a purchase because you clicked the ‘Buy’ button, but you’ll want to have that email available if nothing materialises in the mail, so you have the order number and date to quote to Customer Service.

A filter is perfect for situations like this, where you can mark your auto-confirm emails as read and apply the label ‘online shopping’, without ever having to even open your inbox.

The key reason this works, however, is that you don’t need to even know the email ever arrived unless something goes wrong. This means that, rather than opening an email, reading it, then moving it to a folder, as is the traditional method of using folders and labels, you skip both reading it and moving it. Additionally, anything you do need under this label will likely be near the top, so no scrolling through long lists of emails.

If you made your order with next-day delivery and it shows up the next day, then you never wasted time opening that email or marking it as read. If it doesn’t show up, though, you can click on the ‘online shopping’ label and find the order number right at the top of the folder.

Ultimately, emails are not physical documents. We don’t need to put them in a place where we can find them easily again, because we can search for them in seconds using the search bar. Gmail’s filtering function is a fantastic tool, but it doesn’t need to be applied to every single email that enters your inbox.

Over to you

Do you categorise your emails and strive for Inbox Zero? Or is your inbox a 20 000-strong party like mine?

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  1. Hi, great blog! You’ve got an interesting strategy and I can see how it makes sense…but I personally get quite nervous if I have anything more than 5-10 emails in my inbox, so I aim to take action on them right away. But it was eye-opening to read about someone else’s very different way of doing things!

    • Nicola

      Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

      If clearing out your inbox helps reduce stress and works for you, then there’s no reason to change 🙂 I know a lot of people who find emptying their inbox stressful and only do it because they think they should, though. Whatever works for you!

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