So what is Inbox Zero? The term was coined by blogger, podcaster and all-round productivity type Merlin Mann, who first laid out the strategy in several posts on his 43 Folders blog in 2006 and then in a Google Tech Talk in 2007. In these, Mann shares a simple way to triage your emails so they don’t keep stacking up. Think of him like Japanese tidying-up guru Marie Kondo, except he’s helping declutter your inbox instead of your sock drawer.
The driving idea of Inbox Zero is to keep your inbox empty by processing every email in some way as soon as you read it.
A few clarifications before you have a panic attack: this does not mean processing every email as soon as it arrives, nor does it mean answering every email. The point is that when you choose to read an email, you should do something with it, so that it doesn’t just keep haunting your inbox, making you feel guilty.
Still not convinced? Follow these three simple steps to embark on your own life-changing journey:
Start with a clean slate
Depending on your current email habits, this may require quite a brutal deep-clean. The sensible, grown-up way to do this would be to take some time to sit down and click through each unread message, deleting or responding as appropriate until you’ve cleared the decks. But let’s be realistic. There’s only really one thing for it: select-all + delete. Done.
If you struggle to let things go, you could move all of your unread emails into a separate folder to go through at a later date, or archive them instead. But if these emails have been kicking around unread for a while, it’s unlikely they’re that important – and if they are, people will find a way to contact you. They’ll send another email. They’ll mention it next time they see you. They’ll call you on the phone (shudder).
Now, take a moment to revel in your new, squeaky-clean inbox. Congratulations, you have no new emails! Don’t get too comfortable, however, because now the real work starts.
Turn off notifications
Or at least most of them. One reason email is the scourge of our working lives is that it’s constantly distracting us from other things. You just get into your groove on a project and – ding! – your train of thought is rudely interrupted by Becky from finance, reminding you about the charity bake sale this afternoon. In one case study, researchers found that it took an average of 64 seconds for workers to get back on task after checking their email (and that’s not including the time spent actually reading or dealing with the emails).3 Check your inbox every ten minutes over an eight-hour stretch and that’s 50 minutes of your working day spent just getting your head back into the zone after switching tasks.
Check your email on your own terms instead. Set your inbox to retrieve email at a specific interval rather than every time a new message arrives.
Only read each email once
Whenever you do check your inbox, the important thing is that you actually do something with the contents. As per Mann’s mantra: ‘Your job is not to read an email and then read it again.’ Upon reading, he recommends immediately taking one of five actions: delete, delegate, respond, defer, do.