1. People who archive incoming emails when they are finished with them, and try to achieve “inbox zero”
  2. People who leave all incoming email in their “inbox” forever but use “Mark as Unread” or Star/Flag message to indicate items still requiring action

If you’re a Type #1 person, you can stop reading now.

If are a “never archive anything” type person, I’d like to make a case for why you should become an “inbox zero” type person and archive emails when you’re done with them.

You may be thinking, “who are you to tell me how to manage my email!?” It’s true, I have no right to that, and I understand that different people have different workflows. But I have heard all the reasons and still strongly believe all Type #2 people would be better off if they become Type #1 people.

I have made my case to several people over the last few years and all of them that have ever tried it have thanked me later. I believe there is really no downside to becoming a Type #2 person and only upside.

I know that not everybody is used to archiving their email, but I’d like to make a case to you that it’s not any more difficult and that if you give it a shot, it will really help your workflow. First, let me address the top 3 reasons people usually give for why they don’t archive currently:

“Archiving is an unnecessary extra step”

The thing is, it’s not really an extra step to archive an email once you’re done with it! From Gmail it’s a single keyboard shortcut or a single click of the Archive button. You’d have to click Back anyway so it’s 0 additional steps to archive a message instead.

“I keep emails in my inbox so I can find them later easily”

Emails are still searchable even when archived, and you can see all those messages in Gmail under All Mail. Archived mail is not lost, it can still be easily browsed and searched.

“I treat ‘unread’ or ‘starred’ messages as my actionable items list, which is just as good as archiving”

Abusing the “Unread” feature to keep emails around that you actually did read but just haven’t finished handling / responding to yet is unwise for two reasons. First, it prevents you from having a true list of actually unread emails.

Second, using Unread status or Stars/Flags to indicate actionable items means that your inbox is a mix of “emails I’m done with” and “really important emails I shouldn’t forget to handle or respond to”. Those items are interspersed. Sure, having items as bold (unread) or starred can make the important ones stand out, but what happens if you don’t remember to handle them before they end up on page 2? With an infinite inbox, it’s too easy to lose messages that you saw but didn’t handle yet.

Even if you always handle these items before they get too far back in your inbox, it means you’re doing lots of extra mental work by having to continually scan your inbox for items that need handling. You have to keep seeing the already handled items unnecessarily which means more things for your brain to process. Wouldn’t it be better if there was a single concise list of emails requiring further action?

Why archiving is better…

We’ve established that there’s really no downside to archiving all email once you’re done with it. Let’s talk about the upside.

When you archive messages you’re finished with, what you’re left with is an inbox that consists only of actionable items. No more continually re-scanning past dozens of emails that are no longer important, in search of the one you need to reply to. No more lying to your email client saying you haven’t read an email after you really have. No more losing important emails in the stream.

Archiving makes your inbox the list for all your emails requiring action, and nothing else.

I bet if you give it a shot, you’ll like it within a week.

How to get started

Start out by doing a bulk archive of everything in your inbox that you know has been handled. In Gmail there’s a Select All checkbox, then a second link appears at the top to truly select all. Then you can click Archive.

When a new email comes in, of course, you first need to read it (or at least skim the subject/sender). If you decide you’ve read enough and it requires no action, then simply hit Archive! If you’re done your part and replied to a message, hit Archive! If the email represented a task and you finished the task, hit Archive! If it’s a newsletter and you finished reading it, hit Archive! (If it’s a newsletter or promotional email you never care to read, then Unsubscribe… and then Archive!)

Now, you can look at your inbox anytime to see and handle emails that still need more reading, responding, or action.