The Zero Inbox Phenomenon

If you read Michael Hyatt’s blog or Twitter posts, you’ve probably noticed he frequently refers to his zero-inbox status. Awhile back he wrote a blog post on how to stay on top of email, and occasionally he Tweets about it. My good friend Mary DeMuth also regales Twitter friends with her own zero-inbox status, and to tell you the truth, the both of them drive me plum crazy.

So today I’d like to present both Mary and Mike with the above “Inbox=Zero” award, from Nerd Merit Congratulations Mary and Mike!

But I have a confession to make. The reason I was provoked by the inbox status reports was because, for a while there, I was letting my own email get away from me. I typically process about 125 messages a day, and when I don’t stay on top of it, the result is not pretty. A couple weeks ago I was up to 220 in my inbox. This does NOT include queries or spam.

I sent a message to Mike after one of his “Inbox at zero!” Tweets: “You and your zero-inbox are giving me a complex.” He Tweeted back, “It’s easy once you get the hang of it.”

Ri-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-ght. Thing is, I know that. I’ve spent years managing my inbox just fine. But sometimes the correspondence involved in my current job can get to be overwhelming, and the moment I stop being diligent every single day, I fall behind.

So I read Mike’s blog post for inspiration and decided to buckle down and get on top of it. And then I remembered: it is easy.

First you have to catch up. Then you have to implement a system to help you keep up. I do it roughly the same way Mike does. My email program automatically sorts messages according to rules I’ve created, such as: Queries go into the Query box. Industry news goes into my News box. Correspondence from my kids’ school goes into the School box. It’s easy to see at a glance what’s awaiting me.

Unlike Mike, I DO have a lot of folders, so when I finish dealing with an email, I file it. Mike recommends against this because it can get complicated. However, for my purposes as a literary agent, it’s simple: Every client has his or her own file. Sometimes things stay in my inbox because I need it in front of my face as a reminder. My goal isn’t to completely empty my inbox each day, but to get it to ten or below. I’m trying to make sure that everyone who needs a response gets one within 24 hours, or even better, the same business day. That way I can sleep peacefully at night.

So, thanks Mike and Mary for your inspiration. I may not earn the “Inbox=Zero” Nerd Merit Badge, but I’ll be sure to mention you in my acceptance speech when I’m awarded a badge especially created for me:

“Inbox Under 10”

How do YOU manage your daily correspondence?
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Sharon A. Lavy on February 24, 2009 at 8:02 AM

    >Thanks for more good info.

  2. macromab on February 23, 2009 at 8:55 PM

    >Folder for every client is what I use. And for the other emails I don’t need after reading, I quickly delete. Ever week or two I go through it and clean up anything that may be lingering.

  3. Sharon Ball on February 23, 2009 at 8:36 PM

    >I like your idea of creating folders and setting rules for your emails to be sorted automatically. I think I might try it. Thanks.

  4. Robbie Iobst on February 23, 2009 at 5:51 PM


    “The key, I think, is simply to not be popular;)”

    I laughed out loud. :0) You are too right! Maybe we can have coffee and send emails to each other that we can delete.

  5. Rachelle on February 23, 2009 at 5:37 PM

    >Anon 3:05,

    “… they often forget the writer is a real person who slaved over the ms. and query letter, and only see it as one more message to delete or ms. to discard.”

    I beg to differ. I don’t know of any agents who forget that there are real people behind the queries. It’s those people, after all, whom we are hoping to sign as clients.

    In fact, you may have missed the point of my post. None of the messages in my box are “just one more to delete or discard.” Everything is treated respectfully and given the attention it deserves. I wonder why people have such a poor view of agents?

    Besides, I clearly said that the “inbox” I was writing about does NOT include queries. Those are in a separate box, which NEVER has a zero-balance and usually numbers in the hundreds.

  6. Jan Parrish on February 23, 2009 at 5:29 PM

    >I agree, keeping up on email is difficult. I also think you can just get too organized this so many folders you simply lose track of emails.

    The key? An assistant. Yup, if I had an assistant, it would all be OK. LOL. Actually, I think for me the key is to manage my time better.

  7. Sarah on February 23, 2009 at 5:20 PM

    >The key, I think, is simply to not be popular;)

  8. Anonymous on February 23, 2009 at 5:05 PM

    >Yes, we know how busy agents are, but they often forget the writer is a real person who slaved over the ms. and query letter, and only see it as one more message to delete or ms. to discard.

    Unlike many agents, you do seem to care about writers but this no-response trend doesn’t help quell our fears…

  9. CJ Raymer on February 23, 2009 at 5:02 PM

    >A “zero-in-box” status???? Who knew there could be such a thing? I do try to organize everything in folders from industry newsletters, to education info, to my kid’s school stuff, to parent emails, to personal, to…ughh! It’s exhausting just thinking about it all. It seems that every time I do get below, say 10 or so, 5 more arrive. I take two steps forward then three back.

    Well, I’m pleased to hear that others have found the promised land. Maybe I’ll get there some day.

  10. Melissa on February 23, 2009 at 4:39 PM

    >I don’t use any filters on my work e-mail. It comes in, and I read it. If it requires a quick reply, I reply immediately. If it’s a thread, I keep only the most recent in the thread — when the thread is complete, the final e-mail is moved to the project folder. Project info/decisions are moved to the project folders. Mail I need to take further action on stays in my inbox until I act on it. I range from 0-10 mails in my inbox at work.

    At home, I run a large mailing list and participate on a few others. I used to get 200+ e-mails a day, but now I’m down to 30-50. Again, I read immediately. I tend to take longer to reply to personal mail, but I still endeavor to keep my mailbox reasonably caught up. My list mailbox stays at or close to zero. My regular inbox… okay, not as successful there. But I get the important stuff and have nothing unread.

  11. Andrew on February 23, 2009 at 4:16 PM

    >How do I deal with a full inbox?

    Well, the delete key works real good…

    Seriously, email was taking over my life, and except for a very few lines of communication I have gone back to telephone or snail mail. If a correspondent doesn’t consider it worth their time to pick up the phonme, I guess I really didn’t need to talk to him or her anyway.

  12. Marla Taviano on February 23, 2009 at 3:43 PM

    >Earlier today I was deleting a HUGE forward someone sent me. (grrrr…) Sent me over my mailbox limit.

    Accidentally deleted everything in my inbox. (!!!!) Thankfully, I only lost 20 or so (I think).

    I’m pretty sure you jinxed me. 🙂

  13. T. Anne on February 23, 2009 at 12:23 PM

    >I don’t delete any of my emails. I read the ones I want and let the rest float away to a different page eventually. BTW, Cute badge! Although it does look suspiciously like it belongs on my daughters brownie vest. You’re not selling cookies are you? 😉

  14. Anonymous on February 23, 2009 at 12:19 PM

    >I have 3 email accounts: 1 business and 2 personal.

    My business account has 1000 inbox msgs.

    My 2 personal accounts average 500 msgs in the inbox.

    I can’t imagine what it must be like to have a zero inbox. Maybe I should put it on my bucket list 🙂

    Seriously, though, I’m not sure why I would need a zero inbox. The msgs have all been read. Most have been dealt with. I just don’t delete mail that I might ever need again. Sort of like an electronic pack rat.


  15. Janet on February 23, 2009 at 11:59 AM

    >It was fun watching you and Janet Reid twitter about that last night. You did see that she threatened me with glitter, eh?

  16. Camille Cannon Eide on February 23, 2009 at 11:27 AM

    >I want a nerd merit badge.

    And though I always immediately delete the angel blessing-warning-isn’t this cute-look what you can do with your cell phone-forwards, my friends and family still send them. Rachelle, how do your people know you delete? Can I get a read (NOT) receipt option that tells people how swiftly and vigorously I delete their forwards?

  17. Dee Yoder on February 23, 2009 at 11:01 AM

    >I also have files that I sort messages into and then I try to delete messages that I’ve read and responded to. I have to keep some in front of me, too, until I have a chance to respond. Then they either get deleted or sorted. I haven’t hit “zero” yet…but I try to keep it under ten!

  18. Jessica on February 23, 2009 at 10:56 AM

    >I like to have zero unread e-mails and I have quite a few folders for things I think I may need later. Other stuff gets read, responded to or deleted. I hate a full box. Erk.

  19. Dara on February 23, 2009 at 10:43 AM

    >I have two main email accounts (my old one from before I got married and the joint one my husband and I share). Most of the emails I get are notification emails for updates on my blog or on a forum or something. I keep meaning to go into the settings and change this so I don’t get these anymore…

    My work email has to be cleaned out occassionally because we only have so much space alloted. I find once I get over 120 in my inbox I have to go through and select which ones to delete, which is probably something I do once a week.

  20. lynnrush on February 23, 2009 at 10:22 AM

    >Wow, it’s been interesting reading the comments so far. I thought I was organized handling about 100 emails a day on my personal email.

    At work, I usually handle around 200+ emails per day. I have folders, but no forced rules or anything.

    I glance at the email quick, if I need to address now, I do, if not I drag into a file and address as time permits. Regardless, I hit reply to every one of my work emails within five minutes or so stating I got it and will work on it. Then at least they know I’m working on it. **smile**

  21. Krista Phillips on February 23, 2009 at 10:20 AM

    >Yeah, I don’t do the whole joke/forward e-mails either(seriously, I probably get the most from my mother, go figure! Still trying to teach her to snopes before she sends!)

  22. Daniel F. Case on February 23, 2009 at 10:06 AM

    >By nature, I lean toward more “organic” organizational model–sort of a “vertical piling system.” 🙂

    Between my day job, writing, websites, and personal emails, I’m managing hundreds–on some days thousands–of emails and seven different email addresses at the same time. If I didn’t use a forced organizational system, I’d never even find my inbox!

    I routinely advise people to use email filtering rules to automatically organize their incoming email. Once it’s set up, even the most organic of organizers can sort effortlessly, becaue it literally is done for you. Then, I apply my secret weapon.

    I can spend my time either writing or reading, but I can't do both at the same time (I've tried). There's no way I can read every email on every email list to which I subscribe. I periodically open those list folders, scan the subject headers, and look first for messages I MUST read, and read them immediately. I then look for threads that may be valuable to me, and scan them to determine they are (often, they aren't).

    Finally, I look for opportunities to help another writer who's a few steps behind me on the path. I don't look for general, straightforward Q&A anyone can answer, but questions where I may have a unique insight or ability to help. I consider this sort of helping to be important, so if there's something I can offer, I will.

    Then, I select all unread messages, mark them as read, and leave.

    The secret weapon?

    I don’t feel obligated to read it all, participate in every discussion, give my opinion on every debate. I give myself permission to not read everything.

    Simple, but very effective. 🙂


  23. Marla Taviano on February 23, 2009 at 9:59 AM

    >That badge is a hoot.

    I’m with you, Rachelle. I file them after I read them, and keep the important ones in there until they’re taken care of. If that makes any sense.

    Great post!

  24. Marybeth on February 23, 2009 at 9:47 AM

    >I have no folders for my emails to be sorted into, so my goal is to keep 25 emails in my inbox at all times… sometimes it creeps up to 35, but more than that and I start feeling crazy. So, I guess my award would be for “25.” And I’m okay with that!

  25. Rachelle on February 23, 2009 at 9:47 AM

    >Good one Mary, you’re hilarious.

    And Richard, did you say “juggle six things at once”? Six?

    And just to clarify… I don’t receive much “social” email and nobody forwards me jokes and other silly stuff, because they learned years ago how quickly I hit delete. In fact, I’d say less than 10% of what’s in my inbox can be deleted or filed without a response. Lucky me!

  26. Krista Phillips on February 23, 2009 at 9:43 AM

    >I’m curious if –zero- inbox means no mail at ALL or no unread mail. I always have no unread mail because I have this e-mail fetish that I have to see what’s come in the moment the little envelope appears at the bottom corner of my screen.

    The things I do to help manage my work in-box:

    New Mail Desktop alert: It shows a short preview who it’s from, the subject, and the first line of an e-mail. If I’m at my computer, I click on it and skim it. If it’s something fast to take care of, I do. If it’s advertisements, I delete. Something that needs work, I use my ‘follow-up’ feature and set the date/time I want to be reminded of it.

    I have archive folders by company, by person or by department. (i.e. accounting e-mails, IT e-mails, but a separate folder for my employee’s and my boss). To clean out my in-box, I just sort by who I received it from and drag by group to their related folder. And I do that during my down-times, or when my brain is fried and I need something meaningless to do.

    EVERYONE has a different method that works for them and helps manage their flow of information, but the key is consistency and that it makes sense to YOU.

  27. Mary DeMuth on February 23, 2009 at 9:40 AM

    >Um, er, I just don’t know what to say. As I cradle the badge in my hand, all I can do is thank the people who made it possible.

    To Mike Hyatt who inspired the big zero in the first place, this badge is for you.

    To all the people who email me, um, thanks!?

    To my fingers that type responses, way to go.

    And to Rachelle for coming up with this award, what can I say? You complete me. Oh wait, no. You delete me.

  28. John UpChurch on February 23, 2009 at 9:19 AM

    >I’m satisfied with 10 emails or less, but I have to make myself not save emails with long-term projects. What I usually do is to transfer those to my calendar. I’m not sure that makes it have better organization (whether one program or another), but it does help prioritize tasks. I’ve been down to 0 emails only once, and I took a screenshot that I save and pull out when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It’s great inspiration, and it tells me that I can make it happen . . . someday.

  29. Donna M. Kohlstrom on February 23, 2009 at 8:56 AM

    >Love your post! It was very helpful. I’m a person who loves the delete button. Unlike my husband who saves at least 200 emails at a time, I read, respond or delete. Only on ocassion do I save and if I do it gets its own file. I can’t imagine how it must be to be in your business and be inundated with so much email every day! Sounds overwhelming but looks like you’ve got a handle on it. Good luck!

  30. Kerry on February 23, 2009 at 8:32 AM

    >My husband literally has 9700 unread emails in his inbox.

    I think I would smash my head through a wall if that were me.

  31. Richard Mabry on February 23, 2009 at 8:01 AM

    >I check the contents of my Inbox two or three times a day when possible, but always at least once. Like Timothy, I have the fastest “Delete” key in the west. If the email requires a reply, I play one of my favorite games: “Off my desk, onto yours,” and send a reply right then. If it needs action, it goes into the “Pending” box and I check that every day. And finally, although I have a spam filter, I check the “Spam” box every day for things that slip through–and they do.
    Of course, it helps that I’m not trying to juggle six different things at once, like you generally are, Rachelle.

  32. Michael S. Hyatt on February 23, 2009 at 7:08 AM

    >Great, post, Rachelle. The important thing is not this system or that system, but that you have a system. The outcome—and empty mailbox—is the goal; how you get there is largely a matter of best practices and personal preferences. Thanks.

  33. Timothy Fish on February 23, 2009 at 6:38 AM

    >I read my e-mail with my finger on the delete key. I glance at the contents of an e-mail and within a couple of seconds decide whether I need to keep it or delete it. If I have time to handle an e-mail now, I do so. If not, I move it into a Handle Later folder and flag it with a due by date. I have folders for e-mail I think I need to keep but do not require action. I empty my inbox every time I check my e-mail.

  34. Rachel on February 23, 2009 at 6:11 AM

    >I do not manage it. I currently have 275 emails that I haven’t read, and many of them are just social. I have a stupid system of scanning them to see if they are “work related” (like somebody offering me a recording job or something), and otherwise I plan to get back to them another time. I sort of hate email. But I hate the phone even more…