No, seriously, empty your inbox.

You will probably not question the fact that e-mail causes you stress. Anecdotal evidence, nascent research, and my own personal experience is saying that it is currently one of the greatest causes of stress in the workplace. I have a suggestion.

It’s not the email itself that causes the stress, it’s the fact that you don’t handle it correctly. I have a few simple tips for you being master over your inbox, rather than your inbox mastering you. And trust me, I probably get more email than you.

Cardinal rule: You MUST keep your inbox empty.

  1. Set up a filter for, or unsubscribe from all of your email subscriptions, and any other service that automatically emails you. Never let it hit your inbox. You don’t need it.
  2. Process your email at regular intervals. Depending on the quantity you receive and the frequency you receive it, spending 10 minutes at the top of the hour processing your email can go a long way. If you can deal with it in 2 minutes or less, deal with it immediately, then file it or trash it. If you can’t, put it on a separate to-do list, and file it. Get it out of your inbox.

  3. Delete it. You probably don’t need it.

  4. Feel free to ignore your email. Delete it or file it. If it’s that important, they’ll e-mail you back or call.

  5. If the only way to empty your inbox RIGHT NOW is to ignore 20 (or 200!) “important” emails, do it. File them in a “to do later” folder and get on with life.

Enjoy your empty inbox. Your will breathe more easily and you will find your pulse returning to normal. You will also find that you are far more productive (because you are focused) with other tasks, leading to you actually getting to those 20 e-mails you put off in your “to do later” folder.

But most importantly, empty your inbox, NOW. Seriously, empty it.




13 responses to “No, seriously, empty your inbox.”

  1. peter rivera Avatar
    peter rivera

    Great post. Believe this 100%.

  2. Rick Garner Avatar

    There's great truth in here. I could certainly use some consolodation…corp account, gmail, and a yahoo. I'm slowly transitioing from the yahoo to gmail. All 3 accounts have folders where I keep fun to refer back to months later…instead of keeping in the inbox which I'm still weaning myself away from:
    147 = Outlook, 111 = Gmail and 267 = Yahoo

  3. chuck Avatar

    So, at some point, those emails that were swept under the rug, er – I mean moved to other folders – will have to be dealt with, right?

    What is your process for going back and following up on those?

    Just curious.

  4. mheerema Avatar

    Chuck – Like I said, those bigger items become part of a to do list that gets acted on as I schedule them.

    Someone said that "your email inbox is a to do list that anyone can write to". My whole goal here is to take back that control. Work in these things in MY timing, not theirs.

    I usually have some time mid-morning and mid-afternoon set aside to pay additional attention to the "harder" emails. So rather than spending most of the day in with my email, i spend 5 minutes every half an hour or so, and then 45 minutes twice a day for the longer stuff.

    Does that make sense?

  5. Nathan Logan Avatar

    225 "unread", 316 total. I'm off to take your advice, in chunks.

    This has been a long time coming. Thanks for the prompting.

  6. fwg001 Avatar

    Inspiring, Trying this today, just emptied my inboxes. I will have to learn to process my "to do" folder periodically.

  7. James Carleton Avatar

    Similar to a messy inbox, my new distraction is unread tweets in tweetie. How do you handle twitter? Do you put it off until certain times or keep up with it all day?

  8. mheerema Avatar


    I consider Twitter to be an "information luxury" and I DEFINITELY don't read nearly even half of tweets I follow. If someone DMs or @'s me, I will pay attention, and if I have a down moment, I will scan through the most recent stuff to see if there's anything interesting.

    I'd suggest Tweetdeck and heavy usage of groups if you're interested in making sure you're up on certain people's tweets.

    I think the cure here is a change in mindset. Don't feel an obligation to read everything.

  9. ritcheyer Avatar

    I definitely agree here. I've had an empty mailbox (for my home/freelance emails) for a couple months now and i feel very much more productive. i've even gotten to the point where I don't feel 'clean' if there's mail that hasn't been filed away.

    I struggle with how to file things for my work email because there are so many moving pieces that require attention. I'd be interested to hear what you have as your folder structure for filing things.

  10. Ryan Avatar

    I did this about a month ago and it's been huge for me. The biggest thing for me was unsubscribing to all the email newsletters that had crept in to my inbox over the years. I had no idea how much static they created.

    2 rules I had to make for myself were:
    1) 99% of email doesn't require an immediate response. The "if you emailed me then I have to email you right back" was killing me. Some can be replied to and filed away just to get it out of the inbox but most can be applied to a todo list.

    2) I don't have to have the last word. Just.Let.The.Conversation.End. LOL

    Thanks for the post Matt. Great reminder to keep lots of margin in our lives.

  11. mheerema Avatar

    Hmm… think i might post about this.

  12. mheerema Avatar

    done. :) check out my latest post.

  13. Ed Burnette Avatar

    Step 5: Get yourself one of these:

    Step 6: If you have trouble with any of the above steps, read this:

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