Skip to content
The Inbox-Zero Challenge: How long can you keep up your streak?

Inbox Zero rituals

Rituals from product leaders to help you achieve Inbox Zero.
Now we have a scale — we know how often we are hitting Inbox Zero! But what do we do if we don’t hit it as often as we like?

The internet is full of suggestions, but here are 3 rituals I highly recommend:

Ritual #1: Des’s secret to not letting you inbox be your ToDo list.
I’m a big fan of Intercom founder Des Traynor’s productivity method — one of his key principles is to never use your inbox as a to-do list.

Whenever I’ve shown this insight to a busy person, I immediately see nodding heads. For most of us, we let our inbox and calendar rule our time. I highly recommend using Des Traynor’s in conjunction with this one. Des has a simple workflow for connecting these systems together.

Ritual #2: Super-charge your inbox with Superhuman.
Through thousands of personalized Superhuman onboardings, has observed his own set of rituals that take inbox sentiment from stressed to energized.

Trash your folders. People who file emails manually waste up to one hour per week. Let your labels do the work for you!
Use keyboard shortcuts. Anything you can do with your mouse, you can do with your keyboard — faster.
Process your inbox once or twice per day. Designate a time to check email. And think about turning off those notifications.
Archive your backlog. You probably won’t answer that email from 6 months ago. Set an “archive after” date, and then stick to it.
Don’t mark as unread, archive instead. Turn your inbox into your to-do list.
Automate triage. Remember tip #1? This is the tip that actually saves you time.
Set reminders to follow up. You’re busy, and so is everyone else. Snooze the emails you know need follow-up.
Create meaningful templates. You don’t have to start from scratch for that intro email you write 20 times a week.
Schedule your messages. Make sure your emails reach their recipients at a time that suits you both.

Personally, I have found the key for me is splitting my inbox. When I asked at Superhuman if my usage of split inbox is similar to other Superhuman users. He responded that it was — it seems that 79% of users have a split other than Important / Other Active.

As a fun sidenote, he mentioned a couple fun common splits are starred (is:starred) and invites (filename:ics).

You can read more tips on this here: .

Ritual #3: Use a two-pass approach to your inbox.
After years of struggling to stay at Inbox Zero, I discovered my primary trick: break the problem into smaller parts.

My inbox procession system actually goes through my inbox twice:
Label all my emails to form "."
Get each pile to zero.
In this way, I can process related emails together — handle everything related to customers, then all email from customers, etc.

Note that many people use labels closer to folders — they place emails into the labels when they are done. This system uses labels while the emails are still in the inbox. Think of it as separating your inbox into a set of mini-inboxes that may be easier to handle. And because I use Superhuman, the “Split Inbox” feature is perfect for this.

Now that I have inbox piles to get to zero, I want to track separate streaks — how often do I get customer emails to zero, what about recruiting emails? The techniques for each pile are often very different. Improving my overall Inbox Zero streaks can now be broken down into subproblems — work on the pile-streaks, and the big one will take care of itself.

If you’d like to follow this same method, start by filling in your list of piles here:

Your Piles
Gmail Query
Current Count
Today's Row in Log
in:inbox label:0-General
in:inbox label:1-Tech
in:inbox label:2-Business
in:inbox label:3-G-A
in:inbox label:4-People
in:inbox label:7-Advisorships
in:inbox label:8-Personal
in:inbox -has:userlabels
in:inbox is:starred
There are no rows in this table
Clear sample queries
Update email log

Customize the queries above (in grey) to match the structure of your inbox. When you’ve updated the queries, click Update email log to get the current inbox counts. The initial list above reflects my category system (you can read more in ), feel free to clear all queries and replace with your own.

One last step: click the Track? checkbox on any query that you want to be continuously monitored. Now that will be added to your daily log. Here’s a chart you can use for the min of each pile by day, look for queries that are consistently high!
Created with Highcharts 9.3.1DateMin0-General1-Tech2-Business3-G&A4-People7-Advisorships8-PersonalInboxStarredUnlabeled27. Dec3. Jan10. Jan17. Jan24. Jan31. Jan7. Feb14. Feb21. Feb28. Feb7. Mar14. Mar21. Mar28. Mar4. Apr11. Apr18. Apr25. Apr050100150200250300350400450

💡 A few tips
Any Gmail query is fine ー go ahead and try it.
The full Gmail syntax will work. Here are some queries you might try: is:starred , filename:ics
This doc is connected to a test account, so feel free to write any query (see ). When you copy the doc, you will be prompted to connect to your own account.
Make sure there is a query for in:inbox — your overall baseline.
Keep an “unlabeled” query (in:inbox -has:userlabels). Focus on keeping that at zero first — that indicates your “first pass” through your inbox is complete.
If you use , add a split inbox for every query above to avoid distraction while you process each pile.
An annoying thing about Gmail: Technically, Gmail applies labels just to individual messages, not threads. This little quirk means that new messages added to a thread you’ve already labeled will not automatically inherit that same label. I’ve created a Google script that takes care of this in the background. Message me on if you’d like a copy of this script.

Want to print your doc?
This is not the way.
Try clicking the ⋯ next to your doc name or using a keyboard shortcut (
) instead.