Why Inbox Zero isn’t what you think it is

Headshot kontributor Julia MartinsJulia Martins2 September 20216 menit baca
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Inbox Zero can help you rethink your relationship to email. But to reduce the impact your inbox has on you, you need a better system to organize work. In this article, we share tips on how to effectively capture, identify, and triage work so you have more time to actually get your important work done.

Inbox Zero: Is it a buzzword? The holy grail of productivity? Both? Neither? 

If you talk to ten different professionals, you’ll get ten different opinions about Inbox Zero. That’s because for most professionals, email is really personal. Everyone has their own quirks when it comes to how they organize and manage their inboxes. So is it any surprise that Inbox Zero is so polarizing? 

In this article, we’ll dive into the what, how, and why of Inbox Zero. Learn about the history behind the term before diving into how to implement it to its full potential. Here’s how.

What is Inbox Zero? 

Inbox Zero is so polarizing because different people define it differently. If you came across the term in an article and had never heard of it before, you might think that Inbox Zero means literally achieving an inbox with zero emails in it. But Inbox Zero doesn’t actually refer to how many emails you have in your inbox—rather, this methodology focuses on the relationship between your brain and your inbox.

Defining Inbox Zero

The term “Inbox Zero” was coined by Merlin Mann on his blog and podcast, 43 Folders. In a series of articles, Mann argues that your email inbox isn’t the end-all be-all. By having a more casual relationship with your inbox you can actually improve time management and get more out of your email. And a major way to do this is to practice archiving and triaging incoming emails in order to achieve zero emails in your inbox. 

Notably, Mann’s main goal isn’t achieving a constantly empty inbox. In fact, Mann himself reportedly has a pretty messy inbox. The Inbox Zero approach is to make your inbox work for you in part by organizing, triaging, and sorting your incoming emails. 

Why is Inbox Zero so controversial?

Inbox Zero is often misunderstood as the need to have zero emails in your inbox. But the solution isn’t to always read incoming emails immediately. When you focus on always maintaining zero emails in your inbox, you’re spending as much time worrying about your empty inbox as you would over a full one. Being more productive doesn’t start with monitoring your incoming emails. Instead, it’s about rethinking your relationship to your inbox.

Inbox Zero vs. GTD

Both Inbox Zero and the GTD method focus on reducing mental load. In fact, Mann’s Inbox Zero principle was inspired by David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) method

The GTD method uses five steps to triage and catalogue work. Allen’s goal is to remove the mental clutter that comes from trying to keep track of what’s due when and instead rely on an external tool—like a to-do list. By doing so, you can devote more brain power to getting work done, instead of remembering what you need to do in the first place. 

Kesal karena tidak dapat menyelesaikan pekerjaan? Kuasai metode GTD dalam 5 langkah

Making your inbox work for you

The spirit of Inbox Zero is to improve your relationship with your inbox. In order to do that, you need to make your inbox work for you. Think of your email inbox less as a thing you need to constantly check, and more as a repository of information that you can check when you have the time—and headspace—to do so effectively. 

This can be really hard to do. In fact, according to our research, 80% of knowledge workers work with their email inbox open. But when you do this, you’re using your email inbox as a proxy for a task list—which leads to inbox overload.

The missing piece: Work management

The problem with Inbox Zero is the email inbox itself. An inbox isn’t the same thing as an organized task list that helps you prioritize high-impact work. Rather, your inbox is a system for capturing important notifications about work. 

To reduce the impact your inbox has on you, you need a better system to organize work. By capturing, identifying, and triaging your work more effectively, you spend less brain power thinking about what you have to do and more time actually getting your most important work done.

That’s where work management comes in.

Work management is a systematic approach to organizing and coordinating your workflows in order to accomplish the work that matters most. Work management tools, like Asana, are built to help you organize and manage your team’s work. Unlike your email inbox, these tools were created to help you capture and organize tasks and increase the amount of time you spend on important, productive work. 

With effective work management, the amount of time you spend on work about work drops significantly. Instead of spending 60% of your time on work about work like sending emails and follow-up emails looking for approval on a task or searching through your inbox for documents, all of your information lives in one place. Effectively, you’re spending less time organizing work and more time executing tasks. 

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How to achieve Inbox Zero with work management

There are two ways to achieve the concept behind Inbox Zero with work management: triaging emails and protecting your focus time.

Triaging emails

We’ve mentioned that your inbox isn’t a task management system—even though most of us use it that way. Email is an important tool for communication, and it’s probably where most of your work begins and ends. But on its own, it isn’t enough. 

To get the most out of your inbox, combine it with a work management tool that’s purpose-built to organize your team’s work. That way, you can more effectively organize and execute work without worrying about an overfull inbox.

You can do this when you check your email. Instead of trying to do work as you go, focus on categorizing and sorting through emails using the 4 D’s:

  • Do. This represents tasks you need to get done or projects you’re working on. If the email represents something you need to do, put that work into your work management system so you can track progress and priorities. Look for a work management tool that integrates with your email client, like the Asana for Gmail or Asana for Outlook integrations

  • Defer. This is where your daily priorities start to kick in. Is an email about something that should get done, but isn’t part of your daily priorities? Defer it to a different day when you can prioritize this work. Don’t leave the email in your inbox, though. Capture the deferred task in your work management tool—due date and all—reply to the person letting them know when you’ll work on it. Then, archive the email to reduce inbox clutter.

  • Delegate. Delegating is a powerful tool to ensure work gets done by the right person. Sometimes, work isn’t a priority for you—but it is a priority for your team. See if you can delegate work to an appropriate team member. 

  • Delete. Is the email something you can quickly reply to and move on? Does it even need a reply? Where possible, delete or archive emails so they’re not cluttering your inbox. 

Once you’ve triaged your email inbox, you’ll find that not only is your inbox much cleaner, but all of your important, actionable work is captured in a work management system. From there, you can execute high-impact tasks quickly and effectively. 

Protecting your focus time

The majority (80%) of global knowledge workers default to working with their email inboxes open. When we get a notification, we check it immediately, regardless of what we were initially doing. 

But making your inbox work for you is about valuing your time and mental energy. By keeping your inbox open and replying to notifications instantly, you aren’t giving your brain the chance to focus on the work that matters. You’re trying to multitask—which humans can’t actually do

quotation mark
Multitasking is a myth. In reality, it’s rapidly switching from one task to another, and then back again. And every time you make that switch, you pay a ‘tax’ on both your time and your energy. For that reason, it’s almost always more efficient to monotask: Focus on one thing and move on when you’re done, so you don’t pay unnecessary switching taxes.”
Dr. Sahar Yousef, Cognitive Neuroscientist, UC Berkeley

In order to benefit from Inbox Zero and make your inbox work for you, move past the idea that your email inbox is your #1 priority. Instead, set boundaries for yourself and your inbox by:

  • Turning off notifications. Notifications pull us out of flow state and interrupt deep work. One of the best ways to achieve Inbox Zero is to reduce or turn off your email notifications. Part of Inbox Zero is being purposeful about when you check your email. By turning off notifications, you ensure you aren’t pulled out of the flow and tempted to check your email while you’re in the middle of important work. 

  • Time blocking your email response time. Time blocking is a time management strategy where you group like tasks and schedule those tasks on your calendar. For example, try creating a one hour time block first thing in the morning to check and reply to important emails. Then, you can buckle down and get to work, focusing on other important, high-impact work. At the end of the day, schedule a quick 30 minute time block—or another hour time block, depending on the amount of email you receive daily—to answer any emails that came in throughout the day. That way, you’re still responsive and on top of your inbox, without letting your inbox rule you. 

  • Clarifying—and sticking to—your daily priorities. Oftentimes, emails that come in throughout the day feel like major priorities. You might diverge from your daily plans to answer an email or do a quick favor for a coworker, and all of a sudden the work day is over. By clarifying and sticking to your daily priorities, you can decide if an email is important enough to address right away, or if it can wait until a dedicated time block. 

  • Establishing email “working hours.” Inbox Zero is ultimately about not letting your email inbox control your workday. One way to do this is to establish when you will—and won’t—reply to emails. Take some time to think through the best email working hours for you, and share that schedule with your team. For example, you might tell them that you’ll reply to urgent emails up to 8pm on weeknights, but you won’t check your email on weekends. Setting these boundaries improves your relationship with your inbox. 

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Achieving Inbox Zero with work management

You don’t have to be a productivity expert to see that your email inbox isn’t built to help you get your best work done. When we’re restricted by our inbox, we have less brain power to actually get good work done. 

With a work management tool, you can improve your time management skills, reduce interruptions, and get high-impact work done. Try Asana for free today to see it in action. 

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