The perfect empty order of inbox zero—or absolute thousands-of-messages email overload chaos. Managing your shared inbox can feel like two extremes: one unrealistic, the other a productivity killer.
To be clear, the “inbox zero” trend is a pithy, if impractical trend (lifestyle? movement?) that caught on mostly because it has a catchy name. Yes, the idea of an empty inbox might sound appealing—just like a perfectly clean house or a hamper devoid of dirty laundry.
That doesn’t mean it’s the must-do goal for getting your email under control. After all, it only takes one dirty sock to negate “laundry zero”—and if inbox zero means it’s ruined by one new email, then maybe that’s not a good goal post to aim for. And the point of email isn’t an empty inbox—it’s a tool, just like any other, that should help you work better.
“The framework can be helpful to first mitigate being continually distracted,” says Jared Swezey, chief technology officer for UpTime Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.
For all the hype that’s surrounded the inbox zero method since Merlin Mann first introduced the concept in 2007, your version of inbox empty doesn’t have to target zero—or any other number.
Inbox zero still matters—but not in the way you think
After decades of use, the amount of email in your inbox gets such focus because email is so interwoven into our personal and professional lives. After all, when was the last time you heard someone going on and on about how they needed to hit “social media notifications zero,” “text zero,” or “voicemail zero?”
The inbox can feel different though, and the reason why comes down to sheer numbers. Email has been an integral part of our work lives for decades now. The sheer volume of email sent each day continues to skyrocket: In 2017, 269 billion emails were sent and received each day, and that’s expected to increase to 320 billion daily emails by 2021. In your own inbox, that can easily mean at least 121 emails per day.
When you are also responsible for a shared inbox—like firstname.lastname@example.org, that multiple people help manage—keeping up can become increasingly difficult. Achieving inbox zero can also quickly hit a point of diminishing returns: After all, is it productive to spend a large period of time arbitrarily processing email messages, or is it better to focus on the main projects, deliverables, and deadlines that are integral to your workday?
Instead of a target to reach, you might be better off thinking of inbox zero as a direction, not a destination. It’s more like moving toward the horizon: You know which way you’re going, even though you’ll never actually arrive there.
Inbox zero isn’t about email management, it’s about time management
Where inbox zero is most useful isn’t actually about how you check email, create filters, delete, delegate, or obsess over fine-tuning your personal email management system. Inbox zero is about how you prioritize and what types of emails you take action on.
It’s easy to check email, do nothing about the email that’s there, then wonder why your inbox keeps filling up. (You know, sort of like it’s easy to look at your running shoes, not go for a run, then wonder why you aren’t more fit.)
You aren’t at work just to sit on your inbox like a hen on a nest. You’re there to accomplish tasks and projects. Yes, your inbox is often integral to your productivity, but not every email requires the same amount of attention and effort.
How to aim for inbox zero
Emails that do require your time are where you can put your effort. As the method describes, it comes down to four simple actions: “Delete, Delegate, Defer, or Do.” Here’s how to get the most of out your email-focused time and energy.
1. Close your email when you’re not using it
It’s so easy to have Gmail, or Office 365, or your Outpost shared inbox open all the time. It’s just another browser tab, right?
If you aren’t actively using your email, close your email. (Tandem to that: feel free to turn off notifications, or at least modify your notification settings so you only get notified, say, if your boss emails you.)
Keeping it open all the time distracts you from whatever you’re working on in the present moment.
“Close your email client right after responding or archiving your messages,” suggests Jared. “When you have your email open and you are thoughtfully engaged in a project or task and you see an email come through you want to go to it right away, breaking your attention. The pressure of feeling that a response is needed will decrease your productivity and effectiveness.”
Multitasking is a good way to spin your wheels. When you’re not actively dealing with email, close shut it down.
2. Set times to process your inbox
If you do find yourself racing to your inbox every time you get an email so you can maintain your inbox zero, there’s a better, less distracting way. Instead, set a number of times and/or specific times of day where you will check your email, such as “I’ll process my email twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., for 20 minutes.”
An unintended consequence of inbox zero “is that if a response is needed right away you can become a bottleneck,” says Jared.
If you’re trying to accomplish project work in real time with colleagues in your office or remotely, try a messaging platform like Slack. Slack and email can actually coexist pretty well together. It comes with its own set of distractions, but using Slack to manage tiny, one-off questions or for brainstorming can keep your inbox clear for important, more complex conversations.
Instead of letting email cut into your attention, when you dedicate your focus on your inbox at set times, you can be more productive—and less stressed—both inside and outside of your inbox too.
3. Handle important emails first—and no, not every email is important
Email from your manager? Important. Notification about some random person on LinkedIn who wants to connect? Not important.
When it’s time to fire up your inbox, don’t let yourself fall into the trap of going from the top and working your way down. Take time to scan your inbox for important emails, and go into those first.
Current projects, key team members, customers, looming deadlines, deals about to close—emails that are important and urgent need your top-priority focus. Then you can work your way down to the smaller stuff.
4. Reply quickly
Can you deal with the email in less than, say, two minutes or five minutes? Reply, get it done, and move on.
“I have found that responding to messages that only take a few minutes of time will reduce the number of messages in your inbox,” says Jared. “Queuing messages that will require a longer response to a folder that “needs response” gives time to think about how to thoughtfully write back.”
If an email needs more in-depth time from you, go ahead and reply to let them know that you’re working on it. If you reply often to similar types of questions, put together a template that you can use to reduce the time you spend typing out the same answer over and over.
“I like categorizing my emails by color-coding them based on the type of response needed,” suggests Jared. “Using follow-up reminders can be useful for messages that have to be responded to either same day or at a later time.”
5. Delegate, archive, delete, and unsubscribe—mercilessly
Speaking of knowing what’s important for getting to your version of inbox zero, it’s also important to know what either doesn’t need to be in your inbox at all or what needs to be passed on to someone else.
Sometimes you are not the right person to answer an email. In that case, delegate the email to specific person on your team. Try to use an email service that lets you add internal notes to emails when you assign them, so you can avoid those embarrassing situations where someone sees a cc’d or forwarded message that really wasn’t meant for them.
Emails don’t need to loiter in the inbox. If you’ve handled an email that you don’t need to delete, then archive it. If you need to come back to it, that’s what search is for.
Getting emails that you really don’t need, never use, get annoyed at receiving, and/or simply do not get value from? Mercilessly unsubscribe from them. Without guilt or apology. Any clutter you remove from your inbox is one less thing that might distract you from emails you actually do need to spend time with.
Lastly, yes, you can delete emails you don’t need. Just as unsubscribing is good, so is deleting. No, you don’t have to keep that email for reference. Odds are, you’re never going to look at or think about that email again. It’s okay to let it go.
A better inbox zero means your inbox works for you, not the other way around
Taken literally, inbox zero can be useful—but it also might be a crazy-making way to derail your productivity. By helping deal with email more deliberately and on your terms, though, inbox zero can be a useful direction to steer how you manage projects and correspondence.
After all, at the end of the day, it’s not about getting your inbox to zero. It’s about moving your work forward and feeling satisfied that you did what you could that day. And that’s a trend that never gets old.
Posted in Email