Does Inbox Zero Work?

What is Inbox Zero?

The name Inbox Zero was coined by the productivity expert, author and blogger, Merlin Mann.

He introduced this method of email management at a Google Tech Talk in 2007. There’s a link to it at the bottom of this post, so check it out. It’s an hour long and the quality is not great, but it is worth a look as a lot of what he says is still very relevant today – at least, I think it is.

Contrary to what a lot of people believe (and that included me), Inbox Zero is not about having an empty inbox at all times.

This is a huge misconception.

It’s about not having emails in your inbox that you haven’t done anything about.

It’s about not letting your Inbox be a source of anxiety.

It’s about not living in your Inbox and using it as a to-do list.

The real ‘zero’ in the name is about how much of your mind is on email during your day (hint: you’re aiming to reach zero per cent).

Letting email sitting around leads to procrastination. It’s a form of clutter.

“There’s probably no better way to have your time burgled than by not having a healthy relationship with your email and not having a sense of where stuff belongs.”

Merlin Mann

Whether you are conscious of this yourself or not, the fact is huge amounts of time are wasted in our Inbox.

Some people claim to be buried in email. And that may be true. You may not be able to control the volume you receive, but you can definitely control how you react to it.

How to manage your email with Inbox Zero

Mann’s Inbox Zero system uses several options to deal with any given email. He does not claim it to be anything particularly groundbreaking and attributes a lot of the way he does things to David Allen and his Getting Things Done system, which I am reviewing on this blog soon.

The options help you to process the emails in your Inbox.

Processing is asking what action do you need to take to deal with this email.

And it is based on the quite sensible premise that, if you have time to check email, you have time to do something with it.

Otherwise, you should not even bother checking it.

A lot of times, the action that needs to be taken is deleting or archiving it. And other times responding is a possible outcome of processing, but not the only one, because not every email needs a response. And if a response is required, it should be a short one. Either way, you need to process it and get out of your Inbox.

Because your life should not be spent in your Inbox.

Always remember that email is a tool to help you do your job. Your job is not email. In nearly all jobs, the most productive stuff happens away from your Inbox.

This is the mindset you want.

Email management #inboxzero
Handling emails effectively / Unsplash

Processing Actions

The core processing actions that should be applied with Inbox Zero are outlined next.

1. Delete (or archive)

If you know you’re never going to respond to some email, even if it’s from someone you really like, and the information in it is of no use to you either now or in the future, just delete it.

What’s the alternative? Keep it for six months and then delete it? If you think you might need it in the future, archive it. Job done.

2. Delegate

Delegating a task to someone else is a great little time management tip that many people miss. This does not mean off-loading all your crap onto someone else – that’s not cool – but there are times when an action required is actually someone else’s responsibility or maybe it can be done better or more efficiently by a co-worker.

Delegate whenever you can – forward the email and delete or archive. Job done.

3. Respond

If the email needs a response and you can respond now in less than a couple of minutes, respond to it now. Many of us get bogged down here because we think that email responses always need to be several paragraphs.

They don’t.

Often a couple of lines will do. Some recipients may find this a bit terse or even rude, but I think one-liners are far more acceptable in the workplace than they use to be.

I once worked with a guy who used to send emails with a few words in the subject line only, so nothing in the body of the email at all. It used to bug the hell out of me, but in retrospect, that was more my problem.

Either way, it got the job done and I’m sure he had more time to be doing other stuff that wasting his energy on email pleasantries and etiquette.

4. Defer

Some people assume that this is the same as procrastinating. It is not.

There may be times when you are posed with tasks that you cannot deal with right now – maybe you need time to do research or perhaps you are waiting on something from a co-worker. Put that in a “Pending” folder (and, if necessary, flag it) and go back to it when you are in a position to respond.

5. Do

If the email requires an action other than simply responding and it is something that can be done right now, do it now.

Maybe it just requires you to speak with a colleague down the hall or if it is something that needs to be done in the future, like a meeting with someone, put it in your calendar.

Take the action and delete the email. Job done.

Processing emails with this system is a lot like the Eisenhower Box technique.

Is it urgent and important? Take action now.

Important, but not urgent? Schedule a time to do it.

Urgent, but not important? Delegate to someone else.

Not urgent and not important? Delete or archive.

Check out this post: What Is The Eisenhower Box?

This is the nuts and bolts of the Inbox Zero system, but here are some additional tips.

Managing your email
Additional email management tips / Pexels

Additional tips on using Inbox Zero

Have a separate list for tasks. Do not use your inbox as a to-do list.

Don’t leave email open and turn off email notifications and close down email app to work on other stuff. There are some jobs that can’t allow you to do that, e.g. customer services. But if you have a job that allows you to do that, then you should.

Merlin Mann says to check once per hour, but for me, that interval is too short. I prefer not to even open my email application until mid-day, which gives me the morning to focus on my own agenda and be proactive with my time. In the afternoon, I can deal with the reactive stuff, which is mainly the result of handling emails and by doing things that way, I have a far more productive day.

But you need to set times that suit your workday and that might take a bit of trial and error. I feel that if you check once per hour as Merlin Mann suggests, there is a greater likelihood of having your attention diverted from other things.

Whereas, if you schedule a block of time once or twice a day to deal with emails, perhaps once in the morning and once in the afternoon, it’s a better structure. That’s just my opinion, but see what works best for you.

The key to Inbox Zero is to not let your email rule you. Do not be a slave to it.

Understand the difference between checking emails versus processing emails. You only need to check your emails if you are going to process them.

Inbox Zero is an action-based system and really helps decision-making.

If you deal with all of your emails in one go as a task, you will force yourself into a decision-making frame of mind and will be less likely to procrastinate.

How often have you done the “checking your emails” thing while doing something else and thought, “I’ll deal with that later,” only to end up not doing it, because the email got buried by dozens of newer emails?

Taking immediate action and getting it done is what Inbox Zero is all about.

Handling emails should be a task like any other – not the core responsibility within your job role. If you are dealing with emails for several hours a day, you really need to question what your job is.

Schedule a “meeting” with your inbox. Don’t be accessible 24/7. If you are blocking out time to process your emails, you could also employ the Pomodoro Technique to get the most out of the time you allocate to the task.

Check out this post: What Is The Pomodoro Technique?

Keep emails short. If your emails are looking like short essays, it might be more efficient to arrange a Skype call or face-to-face.

Does Inbox Zero actually work?

Before I started employing Inbox Zero had a mere 1,197 emails in the inbox of the account I use for business.

I know some people have many thousands in theirs, but I actually did a digital declutter a couple of months previously and remained relatively organized since then. And for quite some time now, I’ve used separate folders for each of my clients and then a few other folders for various people and companies I interact with regularly.

However, at some point recently, I stopped methodically moving emails into these folders after having dealt with them and so the inbox number has been building up over time.

For a while, I had rules set up, so that client emails went directly to their folder on receipt, but I found I was sometimes not noticing when they have arrived and therefore, moved back to receiving everything in the Inbox, so that I could make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything.

It only took me about 20 minutes to get my Inbox count down to zero.

Inbox Zero Screenshot
That’s Inbox Zero, baby! / Time Hack Hero

I deleted about 30% of them and the rest I moved into folders. As I said, I already had client folders set up, so it was just a matter of arranging the Inbox by name and then highlighting blocks of emails and dragging them across to the relevant folder.

If I were starting from scratch with no client or other archiving folders already set up, I probably wouldn’t bother – I’d just put everything into one archive folder.

After all, having a search function kind of makes individual folders superfluous. The ‘neat freak’ part of me does prefer to see individual folders, but whatever works for you. The rules aren’t set in stone.

So, implementing Inbox Zero has not been difficult at all. The big question is though, has it made a difference to my productivity and my time management?

Well, in terms of the organization of my email, I don’t believe so, because I have to admit that I was relatively organized with it before I started using it.

Maybe it looks a bit neater, but from a functional perspective, I am not sure it has made much of a difference. I certainly don’t get any particular sense of pride when I see my empty Inbox and I’m definitely not obsessing over it.

However, actually implementing a system to deal with emails at set times was a game-changer for me.

I was guilty of being distracted by new email notifications and hitting the send and receive button when I really didn’t need to. This absolutely interrupts workflow and was more of an unproductive habit than anything else.

And if you work in this way, you’re always working in a reactive manner, rather than focusing on being proactive.

I think that the method of dealing with an email and then moving it out of your Inbox, which has essentially replaced the in-trays on our desks, is a great way of working.

You know what has been dealt with and what still needs attention and from that perspective, you’re organized.

Email can be a fantastic tool, but it has become something of a time suck and can easily kill productivity, because many of us get stuck in our Inbox.

The other useful part for me has been learning how to bang out short responses and get them out a quickly as possible.

Criticisms of Inbox Zero

As with many things in life, some people love this system and others hate it.

For me, using this method within your time management strategy has many advantages, which I have already highlighted above, but there are, of course, a few criticisms, some of which I thought I would relay here.

The biggest criticism of how useable Inbox Zero is in reality, relates to work culture.

I’m talking about the culture where people need to be seen to be working.

And this means that they have to respond to emails.

This element of the work culture needs to change and I think more teams would benefit from exploring alternative ways of operating, such as using tools like Slack and Trello, etc.

Then there is the fact that many of us simply have far too much online correspondence and not enough hours in the day to deal with it.

Also, the expectation that emails should be responded to any time of day can be a problem. We need to change the attitude towards this. You shouldn’t have to be 100% available 100% of the time.

Working in this way may require a change in attitude. Bosses often send after-hours emails and there is a pressure to respond to these.

The solution to this may be to communicate the issue with your co-workers and managers. Often, if it is understood that you want to work in this way in order to be more efficient, it will be accepted and may even be adopted by others.

For clients, it might be appropriate to put a message in your email signature that says you only check twice a day and if there is something is really urgent, you are available to take a phone call.

Another criticism is that some people have is that time spent organizing your Inbox is wasted. However, these people are often the ones that are proud of having thousands of unread emails in their Inbox like this guy.

I don’t see this as a valid criticism, as I think these people are missing the point.

Time Hack Hero Takeaway

If you understand that Inbox Zero is not simply about having no emails in your Inbox and that it is actually about how and when you process them, I think that it is an extremely useful time management and productivity tool.

I have continued to maintain Inbox Zero in my business email account and I feel it is working very well.

As with most of the techniques and methods I cover in this blog, the recommended course of action is, if you like the sound of it, give it a go!

Check out more posts on Time Hack Hero

Time Management Tips For Working From Home

20 Signs Of Poor Time Management

How To Audit Your Time

[Watch Merlin Mann’s Google presentation here.]

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