What Is Inbox Zero in Gmail and How to Achieve It in 2021


August 27, 2021

what is inbox zero in gmail

Inbox Zero is a classic email management system meant to help you clean out an overflowing inbox. But with everything that’s changed, you may wonder if Inbox Zero is still relevant in 2021 and whether it will work for Gmail users like you.

Back in the early 2000s when Merlin Mann first developed Inbox Zero as an email productivity solution, Gmail was just getting started, work wasn’t as tech-centric, and we all had a lot less email to juggle.

Today, Inbox Zero is still a good system for managing your email overload. But making it work in 2021 requires a few adjustments.

Here is what to know about the Inbox Zero method plus how you can achieve a clean and empty inbox in 2021 using the right Inbox Zero tools and app.

What Is Inbox Zero?

Almost 20 years ago, a productivity expert named Merlin Mann decided there had to be a better way to manage email. In 2007, he unveiled his own system to the world, calling it Inbox Zero.

The meaning of Inbox Zero is simple: it’s the idea that you finish each workday with a cleaned-out inbox, as well as a worry-free mind.

Merlin Mann - Inbox Zero method creator
Source: Wikipedia

Probably the first thing you’ll notice about Mann’s Inbox Zero is that its principles are really simple:

  1. Keep your email closed most of the day, except when it’s your scheduled time to work on it.
  2. Process each message as something you will either delete, delegate, respond, defer or do now.
  3. Take care of any email tasks or responses right away that can be done in under 2 minutes.

The Inbox Zero method immediately took off, offering a way to manage an overflowing inbox without letting it consume all your time and attention.

It turned out that everyone wanted to worry less about email and many professionals adopted the method to try to zero out their inboxes and reclaim time that could be better spent on more important things.

You can achieve Inbox Zero in Gmail as well as in Outlook and many other email programs. All it takes is an understanding of how to use the main features of your email program, such as labels and folders, rules-based sorting, auto-forwarding, auto-responders, to-do lists and calendar scheduling.

Without a doubt, Inbox Zero has saved millions of people billions of hours slaving over their email. However, it’s not without its critics. A lot has changed in the last few years and the manual Inbox Zero method may not be enough to keep your inbox neat and tidy.

Is Inbox Zero Still Worth It? The Pros and Cons in 2021

One thing that makes Inbox Zero more of a challenge in 2021 is the sheer volume of emails we’re getting. If you’re a typical professional, you may get more than 120 messages in your inbox every day. That’s more than 800 emails passing through your inbox in a week. That’s a lot of emails and the number goes up every year. 

Because so much has changed when Mann laid out his email management philosophy in 2007, some people wonder if Inbox Zero is still worth it. It’s a fair question as there are both pros and cons to using a manual Inbox Zero method in 2021. Here are a few you should consider.

Pro: It Can Help You Focus on What’s Really Important

One thing you’ll notice right away — the Inbox Zero method forces you to step back and prioritize. Not every message needs to be answered right now and some you can likely just delete with a clear conscience. Because you’ll follow the delete, delegate, respond, defer or do process, you’ll spend more time on the email that is most important to your work.

Con: It Can Be Difficult to Maintain Consistently

A fact you’ll probably need to accept upfront is that you’re only human and some days you won’t be able to zero out your Gmail inbox entirely. The amount of emails we get and the importance of the messages and their senders will vary from day to day and week to week. Some days, a clean inbox won’t be a problem, other days it will be impossible.

Pro: It Can Boost Productivity and Save You Time

Inbox Zero really can save you a lot of time and help you get more done, both in terms of getting through your email and also having more time for your other work duties. If you’re the kind of person who wishes there were more hours in a day or you feel frustrated when too much time slips away because you’re buried in email, this may be the answer for you.

Con: It Can Become a New Source for Work Stress

Added stress is another factor to consider. The original Inbox Zero method wasn’t designed to deal with many of our current email challenges, such as multiple inboxes, massive spam, automated email alerts and the other mail that now clogs inboxes. It’s important to have a plan so that getting to Inbox Zero and maintaining it doesn’t become a new source of stress.

How to Achieve Inbox Zero? Updated Methods, Tools and Apps for 2021

Methods, Tools and Apps to help you achieve inbox zero in Gmail in 2021

For most people, Inbox Zero is still the way to go in 2021. This is a productivity hack that has stood the test of time, even as so much else has changed. But like other busy professionals, you may need to adjust your approach. Getting the most out of Inbox Zero requires a little updating for 2021. Here’s how to do it:

1. Consolidate Email Inboxes

Start by organizing your incoming mail. Most professionals today have lots of emails coming in, often to different destinations. If your workflow includes multiple Gmail inboxes, such as one inbox for new sales and another one for customer service, consolidate. Use Gmail’s advanced settings to automatically forward mail to your main inbox and then customize sender and alias options for your outgoing mail.

2. Process Email in Batches

Plan to process your Gmail inbox just how Merlin Mann suggests in the Inbox Zero method — in batches. Even if you’re new to batching email, it’s a simple process:

  • Set aside one or more time blocks each day, such as 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Use these 30 to 90 minute blocks only for email.
  • When it’s time to move on to other duties, close out your Gmail completely.
  • Remember to turn off notifications so you aren’t distracted by new messages.

3. Follow the Inbox Zero Process

Inbox Zero is about mindset as much as anything. As you follow the process, focus on deciding what to do with each email and then take action. Here are your options:

  1. Delete

Get comfortable clicking delete — you’ll use it a lot with Inbox Zero. Choose to delete an email whenever you know you won’t need to read it again. This can be for marketing and promotional emails, spam emails, or other emails you know you don’t need once you’ve finished with them. For emails you don’t want to delete, archive them or move them to a folder of your choice using Gmail’s label system.

  1. Delegate

Learn to delegate, recognizing that there might be someone better suited to handling an email you receive. Executives and managers delegate all the time so that they can focus on their most important tasks, but even junior employees can benefit from clicking forward. Delegate, set a reminder to follow up, and then move on to the next message in your inbox.

  1. Respond

Reply immediately to any email if you can answer it in less than 2 minutes. These are the best emails that just require a quick “yes,” “no” or “got it.” Use Gmail’s one-click smart reply to save time. Once you’ve replied, you’re ready to move forward. You’ll never need to touch that email again. If it’s not important you can delete it, otherwise archive it for reference.

  1. Defer

Choose to defer emails for later when it’s going to take you longer than 2 minutes to read it or if it requires a more thought-out response. There’s nothing wrong with spending time on emails that are important. The key to Inbox Zero is that you don’t want to be wasting your time on the messages that aren’t.

  1. Do

Take action on the emails that need it. Forward the message, respond with a quick note, send a file or put it on your calendar. When an email requires action but will take you away from your inbox or requires something more time-consuming, add it to your to-do list. Then archive the email for future reference and move on to the next item in your inbox.

4. Use the Gmail Tools

If you’re using Inbox Zero in Gmail in 2021, it’s a must to take advantage of all the Inbox Zero tools Gmail has to offer. Be sure to customize your inbox sorting view in a way that suits your workflow and apply Gmail labels and filtering rules to quickly work through your messages. These built-in automation tools can help you reach Inbox Zero in Gmail faster.

5. Add an Inbox Zero App

Inbox zero is getting harder to do by hand, even when you have a great system, which is why it’s a smart idea to add Folio as your Inbox Zero app. Folio is an easy-to-add Gmail add-on that does a lot of the Inbox Zero process for you.

Instead of needing to manage Gmail folders, inbox rules, to-do tasks and calendar entries yourself, Folio takes care of it for you using its smart AI-powered algorithms.

Using Folio can help you shave hours off your email management, so that you can get to Inbox Zero in Gmail in 2021 faster than ever.

Click here to try Folio today and enjoy an easier method for achieving Inbox Zero.

Who we are

We've built Folio: the first AI email assistant for professionals.

Folio plugs directly into your work email inbox and automatically organizes your email, giving you contextual access to all the information you need to increase your productivity in minutes.

We are a team of passionate product people and engineers that gets excited about solving complex processes and creating value for people.

We're a venture funded company backed by Accel Partners, Vertical Venture Partners, and other leading venture capital firms and angel investors such as Ash Patel and Jerry Yang.


Folio is now part of Inside Real Estate