Achieve inbox zero with Gmail

Inbox Zero is a productivity approach to email management. It is a rigorous method of attempting to keep your inbox empty and spend less time consumed by email.

Where did inbox zero originate from?

Originally proposed and developed by productivity expert Merlin Mann, inbox zero has been discussed by many. According to Mann, the zero is in reference of “the amount of time one’s brain is in his inbox.” Mann’s point is that time and attention are finite resources to manage.

When your inbox is a glorified “to do” list, productivity suffers.

Achieving inbox zero is not impossible. Mann has written about this and more on his website. The New Yorker even described his system in 2012 as a “revolutionary e-mail-management system.” Mann also gave a Google Tech Talk on inbox zero. From there it gained momentum and popularity. 14 years later, we are inundated with emails. People still try to achieve inbox zero and there are no signs of things slowing down.

Mann’s inbox zero method certainly feels like a teched-out version of the GTD techniques discussed in David Allen’s Book “Getting Things Done“. As someone who has struggles with ADHD, I find the inbox zero and GTD techniques incredibly helpful in my everyday productivity workflow.

Interestingly, when Mann introduced the concept, he had a single inbox. Today I count over a dozen that can be considered inboxes. Here are just some of these as an illustration:

  • Work email (Gmail)
  • Personal email (Gmail)
  • Website/Channel email (Gmail)
  • LinkedIn DMs
  • YouTube Comments
  • Discord DMs
  • Twitter DMs
  • Facebook Messenger
  • Instagram DMs
  • SMS messages
  • WhatsApp Messenger
  • Line Messenger
  • and many more…

How do I make my Gmail inbox zero?

It starts with a clear plan. Plan to open your Gmail at certain times and only to be productive. Begin to formulate a strategy to tackle what’s important and what’s not. Gmail has built in searches and filters that enable us to do this. More Gmail specific, it is important to understand the difference between Deleting and Archiving a message.

Setting up labels in Gmail

Creating labels

Decide on a set of productivity focused labels to use and create these first. Example labels: Action, Waiting, Notes, Info to Read

Action: These are messages that require you to take action. An email you have to reply to, a file that needs sending. Think: Request for your reports to be proofread.
Waiting: These messages don’t require you to take any action. You are waiting for others to take action, and need to be kept in the loop. Think: Waiting on reports proof read by someone else.
Notes: These message are kept for easy reference. You do not have to take any action or wait for a follow up. Think: Writing guidelines by SLT for your reports.
Info to read: These are emails you want to keep for later. When all other tasks are completed. Think: A website with teaching resources shared by a colleague.

Open your Gmail settings by clicking on the cog wheel.

Gmail settings
Open Gmail settings, select See all settings

Navigate to the labels tab and scroll down. Click ‘create new label’.

Labels in Gmail
Choose the labels tab.
Adding labels in Gmail

Here add a label of your choice. Repeat this step for multiple labels.

Choose short and easy to remember labels
Color code your labels

Gmail allows us to add colors to each label. This will give you a visual reminder of which category or label each message belongs to.

Add a color to Gmail labels
Choosing a color for the label.

On the left hand side you can color-code your labels. Select the label and navigate to the three dots. Select label color.

I assigned the following colors: Action(Red), Waiting(Yellow), Notes(Green), Read(Blue)

Label colors in Gmail
Label colors in Gmail

Auto Advance emails (work faster)

Before we can increase our productivity in Gmail. It’s time to change the way Gmail works. Do this in your settings window. By default, every time you open an email and are finished with it, you are returned to your inbox. Time to change this setting to auto advance to the next email.

This option opens the next conversation instead of your inbox after you delete, archive or mute a conversation. You can select whether to advance to the next or previous conversation on the ‘General settings’ page.

Open settings and select see all settings.

Gmail settings
Open Gmail settings, select See all settings

Under the Advanced tab, you select Auto-Advance. Enable this option. Remember to click on ‘Save settings’.

Advanced options in Gmail. Auto advance
Advanced options in Gmail. Auto advance

Open your settings and under the general tab scroll down until you see auto-advance options. I like to use the ‘Go to the next (newer) conversation’ option.

Auto Advance options in Gmail
Auto Advance options in Gmail

As before, remember to save your settings.

Using multiple inboxes for Gmail

Gmail allows us to use multiple inboxes in a single Gmail account. This is very useful to organize and manage labels. By default Gmail tries to do this for you (Promotion, Update, and other labels.) Let’s take control of this!

Set up the Inboxes with labels

Open your settings by clicking on the cog wheel. Select see all settings and navigate to the tab ‘Inbox’.

Inbox options in Gmail. Multiple inboxes.
Inbox options in Gmail. Multiple inboxes.

Select a different inbox type; Multiple inboxes.
You can add up to 5 different inboxes each with their own search query.

Multiple inboxes section for Gmail
Multiple inbox section for Gmail

Use the search query l: (l as in label) and add your label name. For example my first search query is l:action which will open all emails labeled with the ‘action’ label.

You can set the maximum page size to what works best for you. I leave default value. Next, choose the multiple inbox position and select right hand side.

Inbox position.
Inbox position.

I don’t want ‘important markers’ by Gmail, but if you do, leave this option ticked. Remember to save your settings!

Important markers in Gmail
Important markers in Gmail

With everything set up your inbox will look very different. You have folder and labels on the left, messages down the middle, and your multiple inboxes on the right.

Example of your inbox after changing the settings in Gmail.
Example of your inbox after changing the settings in Gmail.

Time to archive! or delete?

Gmail has both a delete and archive button. Deleting a message will remove it from your inbox, leaving it in the bin or trash for another 30 days. After that it’s long gone!

Delete a message to permanently remove it
Delete a message to permanently remove it

If you have messages you know you will never need again, go ahead and delete these. This helps to ensure you are not using up all your storage AND are staying GDPR and PDPA compliant by not retaining personal information shared in the past that is no longer relevant.

For more on using confidential mode to ensure people lose access to this info Read my post on that topic.

On the other hand, archiving will remove the email from your inbox and move it to the hidden ‘All mail’ tab. This means its no longer cluttering up your inbox, but still searchable and still labeled. Thus is WILL show up in our created multiple inboxes.

All mail in Gmail
All mail in Gmail
Go through unread emails

As you go through your unread emails, start by going back a few weeks or months in time. Open the first unread email you see. Remember, we changed the settings to auto advance and so we can quickly go through all emails one at a time jumping from unread email to the next.

Select the relevant label for this email and archive it when done. Don’t worry archiving it doesn’t mean it disappears as discussed above.

Attach a label to the message in Gmail
Attach a label to the message in Gmail

Go through all your emails, assign a label if you want to add it to the follow up, waiting, notes, or to read inbox. (Be selective of the email you keep), and ARCHIVE. This last step is important!

Archiving removes messages from your inbox.
Archiving removes messages from your inbox.

Once you’ve gone through a dozen emails, you will quickly find that your inbox is getting smaller and smaller with only those important emails appearing in the multiple inboxes.

Multiple imboxes in Gmail with labeled messages.
Multiple imboxes in Gmail with labeled messages.

Using search in Gmail effectively

Gmail has an incredibly powerful search functionality. Google started as a search company after all! We will use this to archive or delete, even more of our old emails and get the inbox zero we all want!

Search in Gmail

Search for an email address or topic, the emails that match this search will show up and you can now bulk archive these. Don’t worry, search works on archived message too! Realistically you are not going to be reading emails you’ve received months ago, unless you search for them using keywords. So archive away!

Keep archiving until everything is down to 0

Inbox 0 achieved in Gmail.

You’ve achieved inbox 0!

It’s all about those shortcuts

If all this is still taking up too much time there is one more thing we can do!

Sweet shortcuts! If you’ve ever used a program long enough to learn the shortcuts, you know that these can save you an incredible amount of time. Gmail is no different.

First open the settings and in the general tab, activate shortcuts.

Activate Keyboard shortcuts in Gmail.
Activate Keyboard shortcuts in Gmail.

Now when reading through your unread emails you can use the following shortcuts:

e for archive, l for label, g for go, and i for inbox.

In other words, you can open an email, type l to assign a label, then type e to archive it and onto the next one! All in seconds!

Watch the video overview

Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.


  1. I manage my emails. I’ve struggled with an overflowing inbox for years, but thanks to this article, I now feel equipped to achieve and maintain Inbox Zero effortlessly. Sethi’s approach is refreshingly unique, making use of Gmail’s features in clever ways that I hadn’t thought of before. This article has not only increased my productivity but also brought a sense of calm and organization to my daily routine. I can’t thank the author enough for sharing such valuable insights. Highly recommend it to anyone seeking to conquer their email clutter and embrace a more efficient digital lifestyle! 🚀📧

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