The Definitive Handbook to Inbox Zero (Gmail)

The Definitive Handbook to Inbox Zero (Gmail)

Feb 5, 2024

Gmail Inbox Zero Productivity Screenshot

Disclaimer: The productivity advice I'm about to share is derived from my personal experience, recognizing that there are differing opinions on this subject.

Reading time: 7 minutes


What You Will Learn

  • The Truth About Inbox Zero

  • How to Set Up Your Email Inbox

  • My Personal Tips


We've all been there, drowning in an avalanche of emails that seem to multiply faster than rabbits.

The ping of a new message becomes a constant companion, a nagging reminder that your inbox is spiraling out of control.

If you've found yourself buried under the weight of unread emails, I've been there, too.

And I'm here to share my insights and setup after more than a year of embracing the Inbox Zero philosophy.

What is Inbox Zero?

The concept of Inbox Zero, coined by Merlin Mann, caught my attention when I stumbled upon his blog and podcast, 43 Folders. My initial reaction was skepticism. An empty inbox seemed like a distant dream, especially for someone like me who treats emails as a perpetual to-do list. However, as I delved deeper into Mann's philosophy, I realized that Inbox Zero isn't about achieving a pristine, consistently empty inbox. Instead, it's about reshaping your relationship with email to enhance productivity and mental clarity.

Myth: Inbox Zero Means Having Absolutely Zero Emails

One of the most common misunderstandings is the belief that Inbox Zero requires maintaining a perpetually empty inbox. The reality is quite different. Inbox Zero is not a strict mandate to achieve an absolute absence of emails; instead, it's about processing emails and turning them into appropriate actions as quickly as possible.

Another misconception is the belief that to achieve Inbox Zero, you must read every incoming email the moment it lands in your inbox. This approach can be counterproductive, as it turns email management into a constant, interruptive task.

How It Helps Productivity

In theory, our main emphasis should be on unread emails received since our last inbox check. However, our attention is often drawn to already-read emails – those we've already addressed and ideally should forget about. This tendency leads to a loss of focus and distraction.

One of the key advantages of adopting the Inbox Zero approach is that, when organizing new messages, you're not distracted by things you have already dealt with. This not only enhances productivity but also reduces the likelihood of making careless mistakes caused by such distractions.

Getting Started

What you will need:

  • An email account

  • Some time and patience (the investment will be rewarding)

Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Unsubscribe and Declutter

The first step toward Inbox Zero bliss is liberating yourself from the shackles of irrelevant emails. Unsubscribe from spam and declutter your inbox to eliminate digital noise.

You may archive (not delete) all unread messages to get started with a new clean inbox. You can schedule a time to process those archived unread emails later.

This will help keep the momentum going and cultivate the organized habit.

Step 2: Configuring Your Inbox

Auto-advance Settings

Screenshot of Gmail auto-advance settings
  1. Open Gmail and click on the gear icon in the top right corner.

  2. Select "See all settings".

  3. Go to the "Advanced" tab.

  4. Enable “Auto-advance”.

  5. Save changes.

Basic settings for auto-advance for maximum productivity
  1. Click on the gear icon in the top right corner.

  2. Select "See all settings".

  3. Go to the "General" tab.

  4. Auto-advance: “Go to the next (newer) conversation”.

  5. Keyboard Shortcut: “On”.

  6. Save changes.

Creating Custom Labels

Screenshot of creating Gmail labels
  1. Click on the gear icon in the top right corner.

  2. Select "See all settings".

  3. Go to the "Labels" tab.

  4. Create the following labels:

    • Action

    • Pending

    • Read up (Note: I avoid “Reading” to prevent confusion with Pending.)

  5. Save changes.

Setting Up Multiple Inboxes

Screenshot of how to create multiple inboxes
  1. Click on the gear icon in the top right corner.

  2. Select "See all settings".

  3. Go to the "Inbox" tab.

  4. Inbox type: “Multiple Inboxes”.

  5. Complete the “Search query” and “Section name” as shown above.

In the Multiple Inboxes settings, you can define the search queries for each section and specify how many additional inboxes you want to display. Each section corresponds to a specific search query, and you can customize these queries based on your preferences.

Search query

Search query is used to find specific emails or conversations that match the criteria you provide. For example, “l:” is used as a search filter to find emails that have a specific label. When you use "l:" followed by the label name, Gmail will return all the emails that are assigned that particular label.

For example, if you want to find emails with the label "action," you can use the search query: “l:action”

Section name

Section name is the label or title you can assign to each additional inbox section to help you identify its purpose.

Action Required: Things to get done.
Pending Response: Things awaiting replies or actions before you can proceed.
Reading List: Messages such as reports that you don’t have the time to read now.

Continuing on the “Inbox” tab;

Screenshot of multiple inboxes and filtering settings
  1. Multiple inbox position: “Right of the inbox”

  2. Importance markers: “No markers” and “Don’t use my past actions to predict which messages are important”. (this gives you better control over what’s important, preventing Gmail from marking trivial emails as important)

  3. Filtered mail: “Don’t override filters”.

  4. Save changes.

Customizing Label Colors

Sreenshot of how to assign colors to labels
  1. Hover over the label on the left sidebar

  2. Click on the “kebab” icon

  3. Select “Label color”

  4. Choose label color

Recommended colors for each label are:

Action: Red
Pending: Yellow
Read up: Green

Organizing Your Inbox

The concept of Inbox Zero extends beyond the mere act of clearing your inbox; it emphasizes transforming incoming emails into actionable items and efficiently managing tasks. One effective approach to accomplish this is by integrating actionable items into your calendar.

Demo on how to organizing inbox for achieving inbox zero

What I did in the screen record:

  1. Press L to trigger “Label”.

  2. Enter “read”.

  3. Press Enter again to label email as “Read up”.

  4. Press “E” to archive email.

Screenshot of my actual setup at a jewellery company working as an eCommerce and Digital Marketing Executive..

Screenshot of my actual setup at RISIS Pte Ltd.

Step 3: Filtering

Screenshot on how to create filters to reduce incoming messages

Prioritizing the development of filters and scripts is crucial for managing less critical and routine tasks efficiently. Examples of such tasks include:

  • Managing comments on blogs.

  • Handling requests for connections and similar notifications from community platforms.

  • Sorting through mailing list messages and subscribed forum threads.

  • Streamlining routine updates like newsletters and office memos.

  • Organizing emails such as store updates, coupons, and sale announcements.

By automating the handling of these less urgent elements, you can maintain control over essential communications and ensure that important updates are not buried amid filtered content. This strategic approach enhances productivity by allowing you to focus on critical tasks while efficiently managing routine and less time-sensitive ones.

Example 1: Filtering Emails with Specific Keywords in Subject

  1. Go to Gmail Settings by clicking on the gear icon in the top right and selecting "See all settings."

  2. Navigate to the "Filters and Blocked Addresses" tab.

  3. Click on "Create a new filter" at the bottom.

  4. In the "Subject" field, enter keywords that you want to filter.

  5. Click on "Create filter."

  6. Choose the action you want, such as applying a label, marking as important, or categorizing.

Example 2: Prioritizing Emails from Your Superior

  1. Follow steps 1-3 from Example 1.

  2. In the "From" field, enter your superior’s email address.

  3. Click on "Create filter."

  4. Check "Mark as important" and "Apply the label" to categorize these emails.

Example 3: Filtering Newsletters and Promotions

  1. Follow steps 1-3 from Example 1.

  2. In the "From" field, enter the email address or keywords related to newsletters.

  3. Click on "Create filter."

  4. Check "Skip the Inbox (Archive it)" to automatically archive these emails.

  5. You can also apply a label if you want to keep them for reference.

Tips from My Inbox Zero Journey

Morning Ritual: Kickstart your day by tackling your emails in the morning. This sets a positive tone for the day and allows you to organize and plan your day efficiently.

Once a Day Rule: Limit email checks to once a day, unless urgency dictates otherwise. Ensure you remain within reach for pressing matters.

Value Your Focus: Treat your time and focus as precious commodities. Avoid subscribing to emails that don't add value to your life or work.

Optimize Communication: Minimize team communication via email. Platforms like Slack, Discord, or WhatsApp are often more efficient for quick interactions.

Scheduled Inbox Time: Block a fixed time every day to process your inbox. This prevents emails from accumulating and becoming an overwhelming task.


After a year of embracing Inbox Zero, I've experienced a remarkable transformation. The overwhelming pile of emails is now a distant memory, replaced by a newfound sense of control and efficiency. In addition to the disappearance of the email overload, I've also realized that I haven't overlooked a single important email since. Inbox Zero is more than a method for managing emails; it's a powerful way to reclaim your time and stay consistently on top of things.