Productivity expert, writer, speaker, and broadcaster Merlin Mann first outlined the Inbox Zero philosophy in 2006 on his productivity site 43 Folders. In a series of articles, Man explains how triaging, labeling, and organizing your inbox, enables you to clear out or almost empty your inbox every day.
According to Mann, Inbox Zero allows you to clear emails by taking 5 potential actions for each message; deleting, delegating, responding, deferring and acting. This enables you to deal with messages as your own terms and find time to do your best creative work
Reading emails without taking any action and later re-reading them wastes valuable time. With this approach, you will never have to deal with a message in your inbox twice. Once opened, the email has to be processed. You either reply immediately, delete it or categorize it in the following folders; awaiting a response, action required, delegated and archived.
The rigorous email handling approach also involves processing your email periodically every day, preferably at the top of each hour, which ensures you never miss a high-priority message.
Why inbox zero matters
Large email inboxes make people slaves to their emails, sucking hours out of their day and derailing productivity. A recent survey revealed that American workers spent at an average of 6.3 hours on their emails and the number is likely to increase in the coming years.
A huge pending list of emails also impacts our well-being. A growing body of research shows that email overload gives professionals an overwhelming, demoralizing feeling of not getting enough things accomplished. Most professionals dread to think about their bulging email, which quickly builds up to stress and anxiety. Furthermore, a cluttered inbox can be just as distracting as a cluttered desk producing feelings of shame and anxiety.
But whatever the case, email is a vital communication channel that is here to stay. Business in the modern world runs on email as a communication tool as a quality means to connect with customers, investors, staff, suppliers, potential customers, media and more. We just have to find a way to deal with it efficiently.
Now imagine opening up your email inbox to find out there are no urgent emails for you to attend to. For most, this may sound like a dream but it’s precisely what Inbox Zero promises. The email management technique helps us get clear of our emails daily. The Inbox Zero approach of deleting, delegating, responding, defer or acting’ presents one of the best ways to tame our ballooning inboxes, increasing our productivity and reducing our stress levels.
It is also important to realize that the Inbox Zero approach isn’t about obsessively keeping your inbox at ’zero’’ at all times. In fact, Mann defines the term zero’ as the amount of time your brain stresses over your emails, allowing you to achieve mental clarity and better focus on your best creative work.
The core pillars of inbox zero
Merlin Mann outlines 5 central tenets that can help you to restore sanity to your inbox;
Not all messages are equal
Keeping a completely clean inbox is easier said than done given that the average office worker receives approximately 121 emails each day. But not all these messages are important. As with most things In life, the Pareto Principle (also known as 80/20 rule) holds true when it comes to emails; 20% of your messages will consume 80% of your time.
20% of the messages in a given day are more important than all the others so don’t spend much time every email that comes into your inbox. This also means you should handle the remaining 80% messages as fast as possible.
Mann reminds us concept in triage; if you keep caring for the doomed patients, you may end losing a lot more people who could have actually used your help.
Time is precious
You should guard your time when processing emails and accept that you will not be able to read or act on every message you receive. The sooner you realize that you can’t do it all, the sooner you will be able to return to your most important and creative work.
At times it’s better to say no to the things that don’t deserve our time. Remember that your output can never exceed input and there is no shame in admitting that your workload is greater than your resources.
The best way to save time is by changing the way you respond to your messages. For instance, If you don’t have the answer to a question, simply say you don’t know. It will definitely save you time and effort than trying to tap dance 3 scenes trying to look smart. It’s perfectly fine to say I have no idea but here are 2 people who might; ..’
You can also answer people with links to articles or posts in combination with a template. For instance,’ I have an article dedicated to the topic that I feel will fully answer your questions is a great and fast reply.
Less is more
In the modern-day era where time and attention are the economic equivalents of cash, shorter messages are becoming more desirable than ever. Keep your messages short and sweet as if you were replying to a text. Reading big blocks of text is also not desirable so it’s advisable to use bullet points.
Your recipients will quit reading after 2 or 3 lines if your email isn’t clear and concise. Make sure your email has a brief message, big headlines or clear subject lines and minimize pleasantries. This will help your readers better understand what you want, and will also guarantee you quicker responses.
Use tools such as Mail Template or Thunderbird to create templates. Most of our email correspondence involves responding and sending the same basic types of messages over and over. So why not invest a little time in coming up with a template response? Both Mail Template and Thunderbird can help you set templates for; frequently asked questions, thank you replies, common administrative information requests, etc.
Lose your emotions
Procrastinating or failing to act on Your emails can lead back to feelings of guilt and anxiety. When this happens, it’s important to remember that you are not the only person who has let their email get out of control. Everyone struggles with email even Merlin Mann himself.
Learn to process your emails without any projections of fear, guilt, or anxiety, focus and do what you need to do and move on as quickly as you can.
Be honest with yourself
In order for this email management technique to work, you need to be completely honest with yourself. Take time to reflect on your priorities and set realistic expectations. Be objective and honest in deciding which emails deserve your response and the ones that need to be deleted. For instance, admitting that you just don’t have the time to correspond with someone 10 minutes daily may not be easy but it’s necessary.
Changes You Can Make To Achieve Inbox Zero
According to Merlin, the everyday emailer you should ask yourself the following questions whenever you receive an email;
- Why is this email important and why do I care?
- Does this email require me to take any action?
- What is the best way to handle this email and the action it entails?
Based on the answers you give to the above questions, follow the following simple workflow to achieve inbox zero; do, delete, delegate, or defer.
Respond immediately to emails that can be done in 2 minutes and go on with the rest of the messages. These are the types of emails easy to process and do not require much thinking. Replying to your email in 2 minutes action enables you to process a large number of emails in a matter of minutes.
If new messages come through, don’t worry about them. As we saw above, Inbox Zero isn’t about obsessively clearing every message from your inbox. It’s about going through your emails faster and more efficiently to give you more time for your most important, creative work.
Once you respond to the email archive or delete it so it does not remain in your inbox as a constant source of distraction. This 2-minute rule can apply in so many areas of our lives and is borrowed from Getting Things Done, a New York Times bestseller by David Allen. The general rule of thumb is to do anything that can be done in 2 minutes or less.
This may be the hardest action of all and beginners may find it challenging to determine which emails they should delete. If you will never respond or refer to the email the best thing to do is to delete it now. If you need to refer to a one-ff message just archive it.
Ask yourself if you are the best person to handle this email request. If not, consider forwarding the message to someone who can handle it properly. It is essential to remember that just because you can respond to the email does not mean you have to. After forwarding the email, place it in the ‘delegated folder’ so you can be able to track the progress.
Defer emails that require more than 2 minutes to reply and place it in an action required folder so you can deal with it later after processing the rest of your email.
If the message requires a thought process before responding, defer it to a later time when you can focus on it and give a better response. You can also transfer it to your to-do list and archive it or delete. Placing the email in a separate folder allows you to clear out your inbox and also helps you to keep track of the emails that need handling.
The 4 Folders You Need to Get to Inbox Zero
The pursuit of Inbox zero is not complete without the proper organization of email. After deciding on the best course of action for each email, you need to place it in its respective folder. The folders are as follows;
- Action required– emails that require action but will take more than 2 minutes of your time
- Awaiting response– High priority emails that you are waiting for responses
- Delegated– emails that you have forwarded to others for them to handle
- Archived– Emails that do not require any further action or one-off messages that you may want to refer to them in the future.
Does Inbox zero require a change in workflow?
Inbox Zero is designed to implement your workflow and not disrupt it. The main aim of this email management technique is to stay on top of any urgent communication and still help you to be more focused and productive without the constant Inbox-oriented distractions.
Schedule to check your emails at the top of every hour, every 2 hours or any other time that best compliments your workflow. All you have to do at the designated times is to categorize the emails that you cannot process in 2 minutes and empty the rest or a time that works best for you.
Once you adapt to the technique, you can do the whole process in just a few minutes and get back to work. This will help you keep your email closed most of the day and still improve your email productivity by handling the most urgent incoming messages that can’t wait for hours for you to respond to.
Also, Inbox zero enhances your overall task management skills as it requires you to schedule and process your emails at the same designated time and in the same order every day.
Can you achieve inbox zero this year?
Inbox zero helps you power through your emails faster and more efficiently. Normally once you have opened your message, you will never read it again in your Inbox. This gets the emails out of your way so they don’t act as a constant source of distraction and derail your productivity.
Inbox zero requires a lot of discipline to at first but if you stick to it and make it work, you will find it’s a beneficial investment that reduces frustration, increases productivity, improves mental clarity and prevents unnecessary wastage of time at work.
Do you struggle with email? What system works best for you? Have you developed your own system and found success? Let others know in the comments below and thanks for reading.