Inbox Zero can help you rethink your relationship to email. By methodically deleting, sorting or otherwise clearing your inbox, you can spend less time in your inbox and more time on important tasks. Just make sure to capture any action items from your inbox in a work management system.
Inbox Zero: Is it a buzzword? The holy grail of productivity? Both? Neither?
If you talk to 10 different professionals, you’ll get 10 different opinions about Inbox Zero. That’s because for most of us, 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.
Inbox Zero is a productivity strategy that seeks to declutter your mind by decluttering your inbox through methodically deleting, sorting, or otherwise clearing incoming emails. If you’ve ever experienced the loss of productivity that comes from constantly checking your email, you’ll understand the intention behind Inbox Zero.
The term was first coined by Merlin Mann on his blog and podcast 43 Folders. Mann’s idea was to help employees develop a more casual relationship with email to help keep their minds—and inboxes—clear.
Notably, Mann’s main goal isn’t achieving a constantly empty inbox. In fact, Mann himself reportedly has a pretty messy inbox. The main goal of Inbox Zero is to make your inbox work for you rather than the other way around.
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. Instead, it’s about rethinking your relationship to your inbox.
In developing Inbox Zero, Merlin Mann developed a few steps to methodically organize your inbox. Having a system to follow each time you check your inbox can help you prioritize your emails and avoid wasting time.
One key element of Inbox Zero is establishing and maintaining control of your inbox. And that starts with establishing when you check your inbox.
If you’re a serial inbox checker, you’re not alone—but checking your inbox all of the time is draining your productivity. In fact, research shows that it takes more than 25 minutes to regain focus after an interruption. That means every time you check your inbox instead of working, it takes your brain 25 minutes to get back in the zone.
To reduce context switching, choose one or two times during the day to check your email as part of your Inbox Zero system. This will protect your focus time and prevent you from getting sucked into your emails throughout the day.
So, what is the Inbox Zero method? Mann’s steps follow five main actions: delete, delegate, respond, defer, and do.
Delete: Does this email require a response? The first step in Inbox Zero is to delete any unnecessary emails. This also includes unsubscribing from newsletters you do not read or archiving old threads you no longer need.
Delegate: Are you the appropriate person to respond to this email? Delegating is a powerful tool to ensure work gets done by the right person. If you aren’t the appropriate contact for the task, delegate it to the person who is.
Respond: If you can quickly respond to the email, do so right away. This will help prevent simple tasks from slipping through the cracks. A good rule of thumb is to respond to emails that require five minutes or less of your time.
Defer: If the email requires a more in-depth response or isn’t a priority, set it aside for now and come back to it later. Don’t leave the email in your inbox, though. Capture the deferred task in your work management tool—due date and all—and reply to the person letting them know when you’ll work on it. Then, archive the email to reduce inbox clutter. You can also send it to a “Reply Later” folder if you prefer.
Do: At this point, you should know which emails are priorities and require action. The last step of Inbox Zero is to actually work on the things that matter. Transfer any important tasks from your inbox to your work management system and get started. Look for a work management tool that integrates with your email client, like the Asana for Gmail or Asana for Outlook integrations.
The spirit of Inbox Zero is creating a system that works for you. Not everyone will need to create inbox folders to implement the system, but some people find them helpful. If you find yourself losing important emails or staring with dread at an overloaded inbox, it’s worth trying a folder system to see if it helps.
There are no hard-and-fast rules to the folders you create. Create whatever folders make sense to you and your work. The following ideas can help get you started.
Action: If you have emails that you deferred to later during your sorting process, you can keep them organized in this action folder. This can include emails that require an in-depth response or emails that can wait until a later day.
Waiting: Some emails may require input from other members on the thread. If you’re often waiting for feedback from your team, consider creating a “waiting” folder. Grouping these emails together can help you quickly see what emails may need follow-up each morning.
Ideas: Our inbox isn’t purely a space for tasks and communication. Sometimes we sign up for newsletters or trainings for inspiration. Having an ideas folder can make sure you still have space for these emails without cluttering your inbox.
Project-specific: If you have projects that you are working on, you may find it useful to create a project-specific folder. This way, any communication or to-dos around each project can all live in the same place.
Archive: While there is no need to create an archive folder, archiving can be a useful organizational tool to keep in mind. If you have emails that you don’t want to delete but that aren’t necessary, quickly archiving them will help clear out your inbox without permanently losing the information.
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.
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 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 similar 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 tasks. At the end of the day, schedule a quick 30-minute time block—or another hour time block, depending on the number of emails 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 workday 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 emails for fifteen minutes starting at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. but you won’t check your email on weekends. Setting these boundaries improves your relationship with your inbox.
Decluttering your inbox is only the beginning of Inbox Zero. After you’ve organized, deleted, and otherwise cleared your inbox, you will be left only with important work notifications. These notifications can help you create your action plan for the day, week, or month.
That’s where work management comes in.
Work management systems allow you to input, organize, and coordinate tasks in workflows that fit your needs. 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 things like sending 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.Read: Introduction to 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.