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Overcome E-mail Overload with Inbox Zero

Apr 1, 2014

Inbox zero2

There are many sources of digital information overload, but one that almost everybody does battle with on a daily basis is the e-mail inbox. No matter how often you check it, those unread messages just keep piling up, convincing you that you’re missing something vital and adding to your stress levels.

Oddly enough e-mail overload has actually become a measure of how hard we work, how important we are and how difficult it is for us to take time away from work. When a colleague despairs that, after a week’s holiday, their inbox will have at least six thousand unread messages awaiting, they really just want you to know how indispensable they are.

In reality, most of the e-mails we receive require little in the way of action or response, but leaving them sitting in our inboxes makes it difficult to work out which ones are important to us and which we can ignore. We become a slave to our inboxes, checking every five minutes on laptops, tablets, or smartphones, just in case we miss an important message.

Many people use their e-mail inbox for functions it was never designed for:

  • A to-do list. Do you scan your inbox each morning to determine what you need to do that day?
  • A database. Do you search your inbox for important attachments that you haven’t saved elsewhere?
  • A calendar. Do you keep e-mail messages to remind you when you have meetings or appointments?

Your inbox was purely designed as a place for new messages to wait until you have the time to deal with them. It shouldn’t be used to store messages telling you what you should be doing or where you should be, and it’s not efficient as a database for vital attachments. Luckily, getting on top of your e-mail and using your inbox for its intended purpose is easy once you grasp the principles of Inbox Zero.

What Is Inbox Zero?

Inbox Zero is an action-based e-mail management system defined by Merlin Mann to eliminate the stress caused by e-mail overload. Mann suggests that we abandon the idea that we need to “respond” to every e-mail in our inbox. Instead we should think about “processing” those e-mails in one way or another. He also suggests that we get out of the habit of “checking” our e-mails, without actually doing anything about them, and that we only access our inboxes when we have the time to process them to zero.

The first stage in implementing Inbox Zero is to define a limited set of actions that can be performed with the e-mails that land in your inbox. These may vary from person to person, and the system will work best if you define your own actions, but these are the examples suggested by Merlin Mann:

  • Delete. A huge number of irrelevant messages that arrive in your inbox can simply be deleted, and this should be done immediately. There will also be others that you feel you don’t need to do anything with right away, but that might be needed in the future. In this case you could archive them in one general folder. Either way they should be removed from your inbox.
  • Delegate. If you feel you’re not the most appropriate recipient for the e-mail, or if you’d like someone else to take action on the e-mail on your behalf, forward it to someone else with an explanation. You may also want to quickly respond to the sender explaining your action and set a reminder to follow up on the matter in the following days.
  • Respond. If the e-mail requires only a brief response–perhaps a couple of sentences with a piece of key information or an opinion–then respond immediately before deleting the e-mail from your inbox or archiving it.
  • Defer. If the e-mail requires a response, but you need some time to think about it gather more information, you can defer your response until later. You will need to move the message out of your inbox, so you could create a ‘to respond’ folder which should be processed daily, or at least by the end of each week.
  • Do. This seems the simplest action to take with an e-mail. If the e-mail contains details of a meeting, then put them on your calendar. If it has instructions that you can carry out right away, then do so. If it has a document attached that you have asked for, then save the document in the appropriate place. You can then decide whether to delete or archive the message.

Once you have defined your list of actions, you need to get into the habit of applying them to the messages in your inbox, allowing you to process to zero every time you open your e-mail. Generally we are distracted by e-mails every few minutes, either because we have our e-mail account open as we work or because notifications on our smartphones let us know there are messages waiting.

To make Inbox Zero work you need to set aside specific time slots for accessing and processing your e-mail. Try out different schedules and see what works for you. For some people, two daily e-mail sessions of 30 minutes allows them to process to zero. For others ten minutes out of every hour can help to keep on top of urgent messages.

E-mail is an instant and versatile form of communication which has been universally adopted, even in sectors such as law and banking which have traditionally needed a physical paper trail. However, the sheer volume of e-mails now flying around means that our inboxes can become a source of worry and stress if we don’t have a system such as Inbox Zero in place to process them.

Do you have your own system of eliminating your e-mails? Share it with us below.

Image credits: Publisher: Alisher Hasanov; retrieved from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ideali/2871762876/sizes/o/in/photostream/; link to licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en; no modifications were made


  • Brad Patterson April 2, 2014 9:04 am

    Inbox zero has changed the way I work and I HIGHLY recommend it to everyone and anyone I cross paths with 😉

    Great write-up and while I do still use gmail for tasks, I agree that 1) to do lists 2) database 3) and calendar reminders have no place in your email!

    Here are the 5 tips I tend to share and I’d be happy to hear if it helps. http://www.evercontact.com/blog/5-tips-to-hitting-inbox-zero-every-day/


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