Tech and No-tech Tips For Reaching Inbox ZERO


I recently joined Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, which has gotten me re-thinking how I organize my classroom and how I keep track of all the lists of things I have to do.

Only four days into the school year, I have already seen huge benefits in how I keep track of papers to avoid the mountain of stuff that used to reside on my desk. The idea is not so much to make things easy to find, but more importantly, to make things easy to put away. It took me a day to set this up during my in-service, but it has been so worth it. Check out just one of the filing systems I’ve set up so far:


After some serious hunting, I found this organizer buried in a corner at my local Walmart. This one from Amazon is almost exactly the same with a couple of add-ins: Vencer All-in-One Black Wire Mesh Desk Organizer,VOF-002.* I like that you can insert papers from the front or back of the trays. I’ve labeled both sides so students can approach my desk and find the inbox without entering my teacher space.

*Note: This is an affiliate link, which means that if you purchase from Amazon after going through this link, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!

Whenever a colleague or student gives me a paper or I come back to my desk with a handout from a meeting, it goes in the Inbox or in the appropriate folder, not on my desk.

Instead of dealing with each paper as it comes in, I set a specific time aside at some point in the day to sort through and empty the Inbox. This process, batching similar activities (like sorting incoming papers) and completing them together, saves me time and energy because it avoids the mental drain of constantly switching tasks.

Above the Inbox you’ll see folders that separate different items by priority and again, I set a specific time aside during the day or week to tackle the contents of each folder. The folder “Keep On Hand” is for things I don’t want to file away just yet, but that I’ll need to access in the coming weeks, such as information for an upcoming field trip. Currently, the Keep on Hand folder houses senior surveys for when I sit down to write college recommendation letters.

I’m loving this system. I tried to find a picture of what my desk looked like last year before I implemented these organization methods and this was the best I could find. Imagine a couple more stacks of paper scattered and you’ll have a good idea of what my desk used to look like when I left school…


On the other hand, this year during in-service and in the first week of school I have left my desk every day looking like this…


Isn’t that just so satisfying?


All of this work setting up a system for the papers in my class got me to thinking about all the digital information that comes my way, specifically emails. I can occasionally reach Inbox Zero – that magic moment when my inbox is completely empty – but this year my goal is to reach Inbox Zero at least once a week.

inbox zero.png

What’s the secret? The Archive Button.

archive outlook.png

archive gmail.png

*Gmail’s Inbox (as opposed to the Classic View) uses a “Done” button, which accomplishes the same thing as the Archive Button. I’m pretty sure your email service also has some archive button equivalent.

The archive button removes emails from your inbox and stores them in the Archive folder.* If you ever need to refer back to an archived email, you can look it up by using the Search function, either by searching for the sender’s name or email address and/or by using key words associated with the email. This could be infinitely quicker than scrolling through hundreds or even thousands of emails in your inbox.

*On Microsoft Outlook, you can press Backspace while an email is highlighted to archive that email.

But what if you know you’re going to refer or respond back to an email tomorrow or in a few days? Scroll back up and look at the colored folders I made for incoming physical papers. You can do the same thing for incoming digital papers!

inbox folders.png

Check out the sub-folders listed under Inbox. You’ll see the familiar “Keep on Hand” and “Do ASAP.”* This is the stuff I know I’ll need to refer back to in the coming days of weeks, but that I don’t need clogging up my immediate view. I’ll set aside a specific time today or tomorrow to sort through the “Do ASAP” folder, batching similar tasks (responding to or acting on emails).

*The “Saved” folder is for emails that I can look back on to make me smile. Like when a parent or colleague writes me a nice note or a student emails me to tell me she finally figured out a homework problem. It’s the little things.

The only emails that remain in my Inbox are those items that I must deal with today, the equivalent of the “Do Immediately” folder for papers, though you could make a separate sub-folder for those items as well. By the time I leave school, my Inbox can be empty or close to empty.

Another secret for reducing the time I spend answering emails is to close my email and turn off all notifications, whether they are on my phone or on my computer. That may sound crazy in today’s hyper-connected world and with the temptation of a tiny computer in your pocket. But turning off notifications has reduced the time I spend on my phone and the amount of task-switching I do every time my phone or computer dings with a new email. I love it.

Again, I set specific times in the day to check and sort my emails, batching similar tasks.

This may not be a good system for you. Email may be what you use when someone needs to get hold of you nowIf this is the case, consider setting up phone calls* as the method for reaching you immediately and leave emails for less urgent needs. Then you can address emails within a few hours or less, depending on how you set time aside to check your inbox.

*or your instant messaging app of choice

If any of this sounds unreal because you have 3845678912 emails in your inbox right now, that’s okay. Take a deep breath and consider archiving everything. Right now. Just do it. Do you really need any of the emails from last school year? Or from 3 years ago?

I promise you can open up your archive folder and everything will be right there if you want it. Then you can start from Inbox Zero, set up your filing system and take things day by day. To deal with spam emails, unsubscribe from mailing lists and add to your spam filters as part of your Inbox sorting time. You got this!

Bonus Tech Tip: My new system for sorting incoming papers/emails, which I got/adapted from The Forty Hour Teacher Workweek Club, makes things easy to put away. This past summer I also set up a system for making websites easy to find. Instead of clicking through multiple sub-menus in my school’s LMS, my new Quicklinks Dashboard on Google Sites takes me directly to all my commonly used websites better than a bookmarks bar. Big thank you to Quantum Progress for the idea.

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How do you handle incoming papers and emails? What can you change this week about how you approach these to reduce task-switching and save yourself time and energy? Let me know in the comments!

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