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Approaching Inbox Zero

Inbox 8,907

My favorite formal session of Inman Real Estate Connect last week was the keynote address. Merlin Mann of discussed “Inbox Zero” — action based email management and a system to curb the problem of email overload.

As I sat in the presentation, reviewing email on my blackberry at the same time, about all I could think of was, “Inbox zero, are you effing kidding me? I’m more like Inbox 8,000!” (turns out I was pretty close as evidenced in the screen snip above, taken straight from my email client this morning.)

Oh I’ve tried. I set up several dozen archive folders once. The plan was to have this detailed filing system so I could always find any email ever sent.

That didn’t work.

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Just Do It

Today I set out to implement some of Mann’s Inbox Zero approach. What I’ve found so far is that it’s not so much a system as an attitude.

With apologies to Mr. Mann, in a nutshell Inbox Zero focuses on the five (and only five) things you can do with email:


And that I did. Here it is, about 12 hours later (minus time to go buy and install a new battery for the Jeep and keyboard for the desktop) and I am finally at a point where I can claim success.

For today.

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The real test comes over the next days, weeks and months.

But I’m committed.

Inbox Zero (well, 4 actually)

Here is what the inbox looks like now:

From 8,907 emails in my inbox to 4 (and those 4 all arrived while I was writing this. Inbox Zero practices tell me, “Don’t rush over there to check those!”)

Note the increase in Templates from 1 to 16. I wrote “canned answers” to questions we commonly get that can be answered in a generic fashion — typically with a link or two to old blog posts and minimal text. Now when one of these 16 questions come in, I can go to the template, address and send it and DELETE the original email.

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This is a beautiful thing. Why did I wait so long?

There’s more work to do, particularly wading through almost three years of archived email. I think to tackle that task, I’m just going to dump the archives on a CD and then delete them all. That will feel good. I honestly can’t remember the last time I dug into them. But I just can’t quite let go (yet) that I may need something there some day.

For More Info

For details on Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero, see these links:

Inbox Zero: Action Based Email – a great overview, links out to the series.

Inbox Zero: Five Sneaky Email Cheats

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And here is link to an Inbox Zero talk Merlin did at Google. It’s an hour long, but worth a listen…

If you feel overwhelmed by email (and you know you do) you owe it to yourself to read through Merlin’s writings, or watch the video (and really, you can pretty much just listen).

Do it. Do it now.

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Written By

Jay is the Broker / Owner of Thompson's Realty in Phoenix, Arizona. A self-professed "Man with a blogging problem" he can be found across the Interweb, including at the Phoenix Real Estate Guy blog where he opines on all things real estate and tosses out random musings.



  1. Jonathan Dalton

    July 27, 2008 at 1:25 am

    Don’t even want to think about archive files. Question is, is it really okay to drop e-mail conversations and not keep a record of what was said? Or is the theory that if a transaction never happened, there’s no need to keep.

  2. Bill Lublin

    July 27, 2008 at 1:41 am

    Like Jonathan I have a fear of not having the record of an email much later for a lot of reasons, memory being one of them, litigation another, keeping the facts straight a third.

    All of that being said. I think it might be time to try this on some level before I get buried under the pile of discarded envelopes the e-mails came in.

  3. Todd Carpenter

    July 27, 2008 at 1:47 am

    I almost choked on my coffee when you twittered “over 8000” during the presentation. My 29 were only there because I had limited access to them while I was away from my desktop. I’ve been an Inbox Zero guy for quite a while. It really works.

    BTW, Merlin Mann is @hotdogsladies on twitter and hosts a most vile and hilarious podcast called You Look Nice Today. I’m a huge fan.

  4. Larry Yatkowsky

    July 27, 2008 at 1:49 am


    Not sure that it’s wise to presume a transaction is the key as opposed to the conversation?

    Disk storage is cheap so keeping the record of that conversation is probably wise as you never know what you might be dragged into.

    I do presume there exists some limitation statute in your area which might be worth confirming beforehand.

  5. Stephan Lindemann

    July 27, 2008 at 2:11 am

    I think one telling word in your article is that you were “reviewing” emails. The key is to make a decision for each of them right away. I first got this from (cheesy, I know) one of the early books of Donald Trump, where he recommends to touch each piece of paper mail only once, and decide what to do with it right away. So the idea is older than email itself.

  6. Jay Thompson

    July 27, 2008 at 2:22 am

    I keep EVERY email between both clients AND prospects. The key, IMHO, is to get them the heck out of the inbox itself.

    There doesn’t seem to be much point in keeping 2 or 3 year old emails on a hard drive though. I’m going to slap them on a CD or thumb drive. Or ideally, compile all email “conversations” from an individual (or transaction) and convert it to a PDF file, with timestamps intact, and add that to the electronic record.

    As for statutes of limitations, since all our transaction “paperwork” is electronic, I intend to just keep them forever. That’s easier than going back 3 – 5 years and purging. Archive it and forget it.

  7. Kris Berg

    July 27, 2008 at 8:04 am

    I happened to be occupying the seat next to Jay when the revelation came, the revelation that it was time to take control of my inbox and my life. I returned home from Inman not to Jay’s quite impressive 8,000 messages in my inbox (I’m not the Phoenix Real Estate Guy, after all), but to 133, and these represented only about 12 hours worth of activity. I am proud to say that I am down to zero. My trick was setting up the “deferred” folder. Now my plan is to set aside about thirty minutes each day to dispense with these non-essential items.

    Jonathan – As for the need to keep stuff, here is my solution. I use the (free) pdf995 software which allows me to print to pdf. I only really need to keep emails which are transaction related, so I create a folder on my computer for each transaction or client. The minute I dispense with an email, I print it to pdf and save it to the appropriate folder, which takes one nano-second. Then I delete it from my email client. Now, at the end of each transaction, I combine the related emails into a single pdf, print them for the file (yes, my broker still requires a paper file), and I drop them to a transaction archive disk which becomes my own “paper” transaction file. Finally, I zap the folder on my computer which is no longer needed. My print/save/delete series of keystrokes has become so routine, that it takes me virtually no time and helps keep my email life in order.

  8. Jim Gatos

    July 27, 2008 at 8:26 am

    I make separate folders for each property or client using Thunderbird. I back up all my emails and when I delete a folder I may change it to a pdf file first and simply save it or transfer it to a cd. However I hear now that CD read formats only last a couple of years so I am looking for other solutions.

  9. Jonathan Dalton

    July 27, 2008 at 8:40 am

    Larry – probably depends on the conversation and the nature of the e-mail. I haven’t deleted anything that’s come through regarding my synagogue, as much to cover my own tuchas as for any other reason.

    Kris – any way you can translate the second paragraph to English? It’s early here …

  10. Vicki Moore

    July 27, 2008 at 10:37 am

    8000?!? OMG. Thanks for the link to the presentation. There was nowhere to sit and no way I was going to stand for an hour.

  11. Ginger Wilcox

    July 27, 2008 at 10:51 am

    Thanks for the recap. Everyone knows I wasn’t there after Jburslem called me out. 😮 )

  12. Kris Berg

    July 27, 2008 at 10:58 am

    JD – No need to get snippy, mister. I put on my big-thinking hat just for you. I could charge for this stuff, you know. 🙂

  13. Linda Davis

    July 27, 2008 at 11:11 am

    I’ve been a big fan of Merlin after I read David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”, one of my very favorite business books. If you like this Inbox Zero stuff, you will love David’s book and you’ll soon be carrying moleskine notebooks around.

    I’m also a big fan of Jays.

  14. Jonathan Dalton

    July 27, 2008 at 11:34 am

    I wasn’t being snippy, Kris … just very confused this early in the morning. You had me until the combining e-mails into one big pdf and I just went south.

  15. Michelle Berry

    July 27, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    I love, love, love this concept….thank you for including the links. I’ve successfully streamlined my email time by setting up filters in G-mail, and the same can be done creating rules in Outlook. I have a number of regular emails that now “skip the inbox” and go to an appropriate file (or label in Gmail). The most urgent (new leads) go to my inbox and get immediate response. Everything else waits it’s turn. A couple times a day, I quickly scan the contents of folders and only respond to the most urgent, delete others, and “star” others for a later response. But I’m not at zero….not just yet…

  16. Andy Kaufman

    July 27, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks for the kick in the pants Jay.

    As I type this message, I have 25,124 unread emails in my in box. Yes, my name is Andy and I have a problem. I’ve been threatening to declare email bankruptcy for the past few months, but fear has held me back. I’m making one final backup and then hitting archive (you can still search archived emails is gmail right?).

    BTW, #8 Kris – Thanks for posting your archiving workflow!

  17. Kris Berg

    July 27, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    @andykaufman At least someone appreciates my contibutions, however lame!

  18. Bob

    July 27, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    I used to do it this way with Outlook, but switched to gmail because of the large amount of storage and online access. The ability to use labels is similar to folders. Every client or transaction is assigned a label. Combined with a program like smartfax or efax, which saves as a pdf, I can quickly access almost everything for a given transaction from anywhere which I can’t do with Outlook.

    I’ll archive to a CD, but I wont delete anything related to conversation.

  19. Missy Caulk

    July 27, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    I liked that session too, had read some blogs on it, but it was nice to hear him speak and see it in action. Setting mine up tomorrow, definately need an archive folder in Outlook.

  20. Jonthan Dalton

    July 27, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Here’s the cool thing about not knowing how to repair the computer. Rather than trying to figure out how to repair my main profile (FF doesn’t work normally) I simply created a new. Brought over my e-mail files yesterday.

    Complication in the old profile was I had multiple inboxes and for the business inbox I never really deleted anything. In the process of correcting.

    Going through the archives might work but there are 10K e-mails lurking there.

  21. Ashley Drake Gephart

    July 28, 2008 at 2:15 am

    Well I just spent the day doing the same. Didn’t go to the conference but the idea is sound. I now have my emails cleaned up, my templates ready to go and filled up my database with some “orphaned” emails I found. I am feel like I have been hit by a bus. A big bus called Outlook.

  22. Glenn fm Naples

    July 28, 2008 at 6:14 am

    Time management always preached respond, delegate, read later, or trash with the idea of “touching a piece of paper once”. Outlook with filtering does this well and keeps my inbox empty.
    For those of you will a big inbox and using outlook, just sort by either sender or subject and you can easily delete some of those e-mails that are totally worthless in keeping or reviewing.

  23. Irina Netchaev

    July 28, 2008 at 11:32 am

    Hi Jay, it doesn’t matter how I try, I can’t seem to get my emails to even under 100. I’ve seen the video and tried to apply it – maybe my attitude is not quite there and I just don’t want to do it.

    My dilemma comes from this, when my laptop crashed, I lost all my emails (yes… I didn’t back it up- stupid!) I survived without them. Yes… there are a few emails that I truly needed since, but it was okay. Why is it that I can’t implement the suggested steps above? Rhetorical – no answer needed 🙂

  24. Steve Belt

    July 28, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    I saw the tweets about inbox zero and was able to get from inbox 1000 to inbox 400 in an hour. Still need to work on it, as its a natural part of my annual ritual around Christmas that balloons out of control throughout the year.

  25. CWaterhouse

    July 28, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    JT –

    I get flustered just looking at an inbox with 100+ messages … 100 opportunities to connect, 100 opportunities to do business, 100 people who want to know more about (something) – I just can’t imagine 8000.

    Without sounding condescending, I’m proud of you. I’m sure your effort will produce great results.

  26. John Wake

    July 31, 2008 at 3:05 am


    A trend I noticed at the Star Power conference was teams hiring a “Leads Manager,” “Lead Incubator” “Online Coordinator” type position.

    They tend to work leads thoroughly until the lead becomes an “A” lead who is ready to go out and buy a home. At that point, the lead is handed off to a buyer specialist. The conversion rate for one team quadrupled.

    Jay, you’re getting pretty big. Do you have an assistant? Can you off load these template emails to her? Or better still, have her get all the emails and have her send you only the ones that need your action.

    Anyone know of virtual assistants that will do this kinda stuff?

  27. Obeoman

    August 23, 2008 at 7:45 am

    Well…I missed Inman (again)…so I thought it was OK to have, say, like 70 to 100 legit emails a day.

    Email is easy-eventually.

    Making one minute phone calls is a lot harder. I would rather twitter.


  28. Jay Thompson

    April 11, 2009 at 9:34 am

    Just for the historical record, I wrote this post almost nine months ago.

    I’m currently at Inbox 12,025….


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