Keeping Your Inbox Empty!

Take control of your e-mail inbox through commitment, pencil, and paper.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #19

Step 4: Scanning and Planning. This is the hard part. Schedule a time each day to process your inbox. Your commitment: totally and completely empty it. Here's how: go through each message, read it quickly. Ask yourself, "What do I have to do to handle this message?" Write that down on your piece of paper. For example, Bernice sends a long e-mail about a family tragedy. Your to-do item is "Send Bernice a sympathy card regarding her unfortunate Spandex incident."  You could also make a note to give Bernice a quick phone call.  It'll save you postage, and making a quick check-in call is almost always faster than taking the time to compose a thoughtful response.

Delete or file the message, and continue. Do not, under any circumstances, take any action other than writing down the to-do item. Continue until your inbox is empty. At 20 seconds per item, you can get through 100 e-mails in half an hour.

Step 5: Reduce the backlog. Take the first 9 messages in the backlog folder. Turn them into "to do" items and then delete them. Eventually, your backlog won't even be a memory. Just remember, never take action. Just write down the action and later deal with it.

Step 6: Integrate the tasks. Integrate the to-do items into your task list. But think about each new to-do as you add it. Each to-do will use precious time. Once lost, it can never be regained. So only add to-dos that will make your life better. Shred the rest and if anyone complains, tell them you don't have the time. Listen to the How to Say 'No' episode to learn how.

Now, party! Your inbox is clean! You've done it. It's tamed! Now if only you can tame that haircut that looked like such a good idea at the time, life will be perfect. So, my most enlightened seeker, remember the keys to this ceremony:

  • Never open your inbox without utter commitment to emptying it.

  • Every day, you must strive for emptiness.

  • Never take action on your e-mail, even to respond. Write down the action first and once you know the scope of everything you have to do, integrate the actions into your day in a way that makes sense ... or drop them altogether.

  • Every day make progress on your backlog, even if it's just a single message. Eventually, your backlog will vanish.

This technique comes from the book Do It Tomorrow by Mark Forster. Mark joined me by phone to explain the technique and why it works. You can hear our interview here.

In the Resources section below, you'll find additional links to those and a handout summarizing this technique, suitable for framing right over your desk. Plus, there's a listener survey we'd love you to take, so we can find out who you are. Please visit, take the handout, listen to Mark discussing emptying your inbox, and take the survey by clicking on the big 5 in the right-hand sidebar.

This is Stever Robbins. If you have a question about how to Work Less and Do More, e-mail getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!


Do It Tomorrow by Mark Forster
Handout on keeping an empty inbox
How to Say "No" episode
Interview with Mark Forster

Inbox image courtesy of Shutterstock


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.