All of us suffer from continuously overflowing email inboxes. Ever since Merlinn Mann of 43 Folders came up with the concept, it has become a highly popular productivity mantra.
Mann’s intention was more about decluttering your email, kind of how you would tidy up your desk. Clear your inbox and your head at the same time. Get your brain out of email and focused on important work.
Over time however, Inbox Zero has become a goal in itself, even though cleaning an inbox isn’t necessarily the best use of productive time.
Rather than blindly applying productivity mantras such as Inbox Zero it might help to understand the ‘why’ behind them. Inbox Zero is important for two reasons.
1. Your inbox is not your to do list
First, and this is the key idea behind inbox zero, is that your email inbox should not be your to do list, since it isn’t controlled by you. You are better off taking control of your own to do lists – processing them and prioritising them to work for you, rather than allow the rest of the world to set your priorities.
2. A big messy inbox creates overwhelm and anxiety.
Just like a cluttered desk, or an overly long to do list, an email inbox with unanswered emails can be anxiety inducing. The way to get to inbox zero, or at least close to it, is by allotting a couple of blocks of time during your day, to ‘process’ your inbox, as follows:
- Emails to act on go into your to-do list (or an action folder).
- Emails to read or refer later go into a read-later folder or a project specific folder or get archived.
- Emails that take 2 minutes or less to deal with should be replied to right away.
- Emails that take longer than 2 mins to reply should be added to your to-do list, where they can be evaluated along with all the other things you need to do.
- Remaining emails, if any, are meant to be ignored and should be deleted or archived.
Ultimately nothing should be left in your inbox.
You can reply to emails quicker by writing short rapid replies – no more than five sentences per email.
One of the best tools to automatically filter your email and make it much easier to get to Inbox Zero is Sanebox. I use Sanebox to automatically organise my email and make sure only important emails show up in my inbox.
I personally rarely ever make it to inbox zero though. I’ve made peace with having 5-10 emails still in my inbox after I’m done processing. Anything more than that causes anxiety.
Ultimately, Inbox Zero is not about having zero emails in your inbox. It’s really about having zero stress from your emails.