How to Achieve Inbox Zero and Stay There

Updated: Dec 25, 2019

inbox zero mailbox

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the innovative invention we call "email." Prior to the mid-nineties, businesses communicated with their clients by calling them directly or through their secretaries. If they had to share documents, the clunky fax machine or sluggish snail mail were the norm. With each communication medium going through different channels, these tools were far from being productive.

Overtime, things got better, right? Technology drastically improved. After the millennium, you could create and send emails right from your pocket. We can be online 24/7. Communicating with clients from the comfort of our home, or the neighborhood café. Our professional productivity increased. Even businesses developed powerful platforms such as an all-in-one help desk software to ensure customer inquiries get the right attention they need. Yes, we have certainly come a long way, but at what cost?

Well, according to a McKinsey analysis, the average employee spends 28% of the work day reading and answering emails. Shockingly, that’s approximately 11 hours a week, or another comparison: one entire work day per week. Yes, we spend heaps of time trying to tackle our inbox, going completely against what email was meant for: efficiency and productivity.

What is inbox zero?

The term may sound self-explanatory, but in fact, it’s not entirely about going from 150 unread emails to 0 in a day or week for that matter. Inbox zero is more of a philosophy that enables an individual to properly handle their time and priorities, rather than have their email dictate what they do next. The key to achieving inbox zero is by using the right strategies and tools (e.g. folders, labels, filters) to increase productivity.

The philosophy of inbox zero was coined in 2007 (the same year as the launch of the first Apple iPhone) by writer and productivity expert Merlin Mann. He states in his blog 43 Folders:

“Clearly, the problem of email overload is taking a toll on all our time, productivity, and sanity, mainly because most of us lack a cohesive system for processing our messages and converting them into appropriate actions as quickly as possible.”

He proposed a simple approach for anyone struggling with email excess:

  1. Delete: After reading the email, you can either trash or archive it (for future reference).

  2. Delegate: If the email contents are meant for someone else (e.g. from a different department), delegate it to the designated individual.

  3. Respond: If the answer is simple, reply immediately. If not, skip to step 4.

  4. Defer: It’s understandable that some emails will take time to read and respond. Make sure to set up a reminder to handle it in a timely manner.

  5. Do it: If the email requires a simple task (e.g. sending a document or link), just do it!

In order to achieve inbox zero and not be digitally buried alive, here are a few techniques to take charge of your emails and get to productivity heaven.

Rethink your inbox

Your inbox is more than a plethora of unread emails from your clients. It can actually be used as a tool in your daily workflow, similar to a task management solution. Most of the time, the contents of an email require action items that need to be completed in a specific time-frame. Use your inbox as a way to keep track of your to-do list. With the tips below, you’ll be able to set up an efficient system that works for you.

For instance, a colleague needs a customer feedback report for a user experience project by the end of next week. The right thing to say would be “send me an email with additional details on the project.” Not only do you have a paper trail between the two of you, but you’ll be able to manage your time more efficiently than having to trust your memory.

Another way to rethink your inbox is by framing it as a messaging service. Successful entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki supports these claims through an email movement that pushes the idea of writing every email in five sentences. He claims:

"Proper email is a balance between politeness and succinctness. Less than five sentences is often abrupt and rude, more than five sentences wastes time."

You probably don’t want to sound too informal like the text messages you send your friends, so make sure to add your professional touch to each email. By trimming off the excess text you will increase your productivity and workflow. And the recipient will not feel overwhelmed with text - prompting a fast reply.