Is Inbox Zero a Real Thing?
Inbox Zero is a popular concept that productivity expert Merlin Mann popularized in the early 2000s. The idea behind Inbox Zero is to maintain a clutter-free email inbox by processing emails as soon as they arrive and taking action on them rather than letting them pile up.
A McKinsey study found that the average professional spends 28% of the workday reading and responding to emails. This equates to an astounding 2.6 hours of work and 120 messages per day for a full-time employee.
How often have email notifications or the need to respond to an email delayed you from finishing a task? We’ve all been there. It’s frustrating.
The inbox zero approach is a potential solution and one of the work-from-home basics for beginners. Keep reading and learn what this method is about.
What is Inbox Zero?
Inbox Zero is a productivity technique that allows you to organize your emails better. It’s based on the idea that your inbox should be empty, or close to it, at all times.
The goal of Inbox Zero is not necessarily to have an empty inbox 24/7but to have a system in place for effectively managing and responding to emails. This can involve prioritizing emails, delegating tasks, and archiving or deleting messages that no longer require attention.
Mann first mentioned this email management method on his website, 43 Folders, a productivity blog, in 2004. He described Inbox Zero as “action-based email.” Since then, it has gained traction among remote professionals.
How to Achieve Inbox Zero
Mann says workers should not see email as a to-do list. Also, they shouldn’t need to check it constantly to the point that it becomes a distraction.
Ideally, you should do it twice or three times daily.
To achieve this, he recommends one of the following actions for every email:
Deleting or archiving emails that don’t require attention is the first step to achieving Inbox Zero. This helps reduce clutter and makes it easier to focus on important messages.
Are there newsletters or marketing emails that you don’t read? Delete them.
Apart from these categories of emails, you should also delete emails you don’t need to reference again, like receipts, confirmations, non-departmental, etc.
You can alleviate the need to delete emails by setting up filters. Filters allow you to move emails to specific folders based on certain criteria automatically.
For example, you can create a filter that moves emails from specific senders or with certain keywords to the “Done” folder. You can also create filters that automatically archive emails or mark them as read.
That’s how Marketing Leader, Board Member, and Mentor at Santa Clara University, Sarah Russo says she handles her email. She uses a set of mail filters to pre-sort incoming mail and batch process them.
According to her interview with Tim Metz on the Doist blog:
“Not all messages are meant to be answered or are worth your time. Clicking on delete/unsubscribe/archive took some getting used to at first. Before, I would tell myself I’ll reply later, but I wouldn’t. Now I’m more honest, and just do that action immediately.” – Sarah Russo
If an email requires action but not necessarily from you, delegate it to someone who can handle it better. This helps reduce your workload and ensures that tasks are completed efficiently.
You can also use tools like Asana or Trello to assign tasks and track their progress. This way, you don’t have to rely solely on email for task management.
However, when delegating, ensure the person you’re assigning the task has the necessary information and resources to complete it successfully. You should also be considerate when delegating to someone else because the person may have an inbox twice your size.
Another way to reach inbox zero is to defer. If an email doesn’t require an instant response, schedule it for later. This could be an email you intend to follow up on another day or requires a long reply.
You may also need to defer to it in the future. This helps you clear your inbox while ensuring important emails aren’t lost in the shuffle.
Snooze, label, or separate this email so you can return and deal with it after you have dealt with all your other emails.
Be careful not to defer too many emails, leading to procrastination and a backlog of messages. Set specific times for checking and responding to deferred emails to avoid overwhelming yourself.
💡 Related: What is a Virtual Mailbox and How to Use it?
Finally, answering emails as soon as they arrive is part of the Inbox Zero method. However, to navigate your inbox effectively, you shouldn’t spend too much time responding to inquiries. You don’t need to perfect every word in an email before sending it.
There’s no need to be verbose or flowery in every reply — sometimes, a straightforward response is enough. Moreover, modern email clients provide valuable features that make it easier to respond to emails.
One helpful hack many professionals use for quick email responses is David Allen’s 2-minute rule. This rule is from his Getting Things Done productivity system developed to help people achieve stress-free productiveness.
Look at the email and determine how long it will take you to respond. If it takes two minutes, do it now. Next, delete or archive and move on to the next email in your inbox. Otherwise, defer.
Ruben Timmerman, the founder of Springest, a Netherlands-based platform for learning, training, and workshops, says he deploys the two-minute rule with automation to achieve a clutter-free inbox.
“I have made some Zapier automation that enables me to tag emails that I cannot process in 2 minutes and try to clean my inbox at least every other day,” – Timmerman
Is Inbox Zero Worth Pursuing?
Some people find that maintaining a clean and organized inbox can help reduce email-related stress and improve their workflow and efficiency. Others may find that it’s not necessary or feasible, given the nature of their work.
Here are some potential benefits and drawbacks to consider when deciding whether or not to pursue Inbox Zero:
- Reduced email-related stress: A cluttered inbox can be overwhelming and cause stress and anxiety. By maintaining Inbox Zero, you may feel less stressed and more in control of your email communication.
- Improved productivity: You might be able to respond more quickly to urgent emails by prioritizing them according to their urgency or importance as they arrive.
- Better communication and collaboration: By staying on top of your email messages, you can respond more promptly to colleagues and clients, which improves communication and collaboration.
- Time-consuming: Maintaining Inbox Zero can be time-consuming, especially if you receive many email messages. It may require regular check-ins and processing throughout the day, which can take away from other tasks and responsibilities.
- Potential for missed messages: If you are overly focused on reaching Inbox Zero, you may miss critical messages or fail to respond promptly.
- Not feasible for all types of work: Some kinds of work, like customer service, may require a higher volume of email communication or longer response times. In these cases, maintaining Inbox Zero may not be realistic or necessary.
💡 Further reading: How To Create an Effective Work-From-Home Schedule
Boost Your Productivity with Inbox Zero
The inbox zero methodology is a great way to stay on top of your email and boost productivity for remote workers whose jobs are communication-intensive.
It is vital to see emails as a communication tool, not a task.
Inbox Zero is not a one-time achievement. It’s a process that requires consistent effort. But with the right tools and strategies, you can master the inbox zero method and boost your efficiency.
Frequently Asked Questions
The fastest way to get to Inbox Zero depends on the current state of your inboxes and the number of messages you have to process. However, some general tips for quickly achieving Inbox Zero are prioritizing messages based on urgency.
These tips also include using filters and labels to organize your inbox. Other methods involve archiving or deleting messages that no longer need attention and delegating tasks.
A clean and organized inbox can help you stay on top of your work tasks and reduce the distractions and overwhelm that can come with a cluttered inbox.
Inbox Zero reduces stress and anxiety related to email overload. It also improves focus, productivity, control, and organization of work.
Inbox Zero is preferable to constantly read emails because it allows you to manage your messages more efficiently and effectively. Constantly reading emails can be a distraction and prevent you from focusing on other important tasks.
By keeping your inbox organized, you can prioritize your messages and respond to them more focused and productively.