The Magic of Zero Inbox

A beautiful day is always ended with zero inbox.

6 min readJan 29, 2019

On May 28, 2015, Gmail officially launched an experimental service called Inbox and the product had largely changed the way we treat traditional emails in daily life.

It brought a ton of new ideas to how email could work, including old standbys like snoozing and newer ideas like bundling.
Dieter Bohn, The Verge

I personally tried out the new feature prior to official release during the invitation-only period. The product was dramatically mind-blowing towards my original notion towards email. It basically transformed email from old-fashioned, boring, log-book style interface into a light-weight to-do list. Upon finishing reading your email, you can choose whether to flag it or archive it. Thanks to Google’s powerful searching function, you are able to pick up the conversation thread in a blink, even you probably have archived those long time ago.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

I used to have tons of emails kept in my inbox as new emails are rushing in daily. I once wanted to keep track of every single message I had ever received: newsletters, digital magazines, blog subscriptions, class notifications sent from professors, notices from student activities clubs, etc. Since Gmail had superabundant storage and I thought it would never be used up, I enjoyed the feeling of controlling every piece of information under my eyes.

Mindset first

The mindset began to change in my final year in university.

I was having a very complicated final year project to deal together with other few classmates, so we set up a few bunches of Google docs to collaborate on things together. As the default, if there’s a new change made by any collaborator, Google will automatically send you an email to notify you, so that you won’t miss the chance to take a look on it. Our project was kind of pretty big and there were a few thousand lines of code to refine. Every update in each line, each time by each team member will result in one more email notification flowing into my inbox. At the end of a lecture I would probably have received around hundreds of emails, every thread looked like shouting at me, “Read me first, I am here to tell you the change!”

I had to read every single email, and it’s very time-consuming: unnecessarily and excessively time-consuming.

Then Google Inbox came out and saved me from the mountains of email “spams”. It was the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015.

Soon I realized, “Oh, why not just turn off the notification? Since I will visit the collaborated page daily and for 99% sure I’ll spot the changes that my teammates made, what’s the point of having all these rubbishes coming in and disturb my lecture with annoying vibrating notifications?”

When you decide to make a big change, the best moment is right now. After mute all related notifications, I started to multi-select all those unread and useless notifications in my Gmail inbox and heavily hit the “delete all” button. Boom, the world was peaceful.

Changing the mindset by relooking at the problem again from a different perspective, especially when it started to annoy you. It is worthy for a good initiative.

Nevertheless, the mindset is only the beginning.

Simplify the way to classify emails. You only need one more extra folder besides your inbox. Keep it simple, don’t act like Microsoft.

Your time is limited. Don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
Steve Jobs

There should be only two reactions from you after finishing reading an email:

1. “Oh ok, that’s good. No action required from me.”

2. “Oh I see. Well here is my response…”

That’s it, you only need two reactions. It’s binary, whether yes or not, whether black or white, whether Yin or Yang.

Most people enjoy doing classification works, they created thousands of folders and subfolders in their email directory so that they can put the right email in the right pigeon hole. If they cannot find one, they will create a new directory (this is even worse, it will cause more trouble in the future). Till the moment they might confuse themselves: which subfolder should I move this email in?

We start to confuse convenience with joy; abundance with choice.
Apple Inc., “Intention”, 2015 commercial

What I learned from my personal story was a very simple takeaway message. You only need one more extra folder besides your inbox, “DONE” or “ARCHIVE”. That’s it, keep it simple, not Microsoft-style. For the rest, let the searching bar do it.

Somehow, you got to trust the power of searching tool nowadays, it’s the driving force of this magic.

Email or IM?

Let’s think about this. Unless you are writing a personal statement or submitting your request to an authority, most of our emails are quite informal, sometimes even casual and concise. Throughout this logic, there is very minimal difference between an email and an instant message.

What’s your focus when you are texting with friends? You receive information from them, response and most likely by the end of the day you won’t remember the whole content that you received in the morning. Information sent to you had already been understood, processed or responded, what’s the point of keeping it there in your brain? At least you can still trace back to your message history if you want to.

A similar way of such thinking also fits email. Treating email as a kind of instant message will accelerate your inbox decluttering process.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

We don’t want to leave any unread message for too long on our phone because we know that our friends are waiting for a reply so that they can make the next move from their side. I bet you will feel very uncomfortable if you are justing leaving your message unread while you are not in an important discussion or meeting.

Yes, we hate to have unread messages on our phone, so should we be for our email inbox: our counterparts are waiting on the other side of email…

My friend, if you are thinking in that way, you would be one step closer to zero-inbox goal.

There is one more thing…

There is a simple action that saves lots of future trouble, and I was benefited a lot from it.

At the beginning of this story, I told that I was once haunted and distorted by all kinds of auto-generated subscription emails. We will receive them from time to time, as long as we signed up for some memberships, they will start to spam your inbox with those 95% junk (the other 5% is useful information).

In one of my writings, I mentioned that the “the dangerous thing about advertisements is that they all want you to believe that you really need these things”, and unwanted and unexpected sale emails will somehow trigger your internal eager to buy something that you don’t actually need at all. The best way to prevent over-shopping is to stop these polluting information at the origin: you have a choice to unsubscribe them.

That why I will normally scroll down the bottom of the email and click “unsubscribe all”. If you couldn’t find one, well you can prepare a lawsuit against them, because you have a choice to say no.

For other subscriptions that you think worthy to keep, treat them like normal email and move them to the archive once you are done with them.

Trust this: a beautiful day is always ended with zero inbox.




A solution generator, a musician and a day dreamer.