Is Inbox Zero the best way to manage your email?

I like to think of myself as a fairly organised person, but every so often, my email haunts me. Those occasions when I have more than 100 messages just sitting in my inbox are completely demoralising.

So in my quest for productivity-zen, I decided it was time to test a different email management system: Inbox Zero.

What is Inbox Zero?

Originally promoted by Merlin Mann back in 2007 at a Google Tech Talk, Inbox Zero teaches you to take control of your emails, organising and dealing with them in such a way that you’re left with an empty inbox. By following Inbox Zero’s main principles, you can process emails more quickly.

The first step is to turn off all your email notifications, which are distracting you and giving you unneeded anxiety. Instead of dealing with emails as they come in, only check your email once an hour. That’s it.

And when you do check your email, you should do one the following of five things with every single email.

  1. Delete or archive: can you delete the email or archive for future reference?
  2. Delegate: can you forward it to someone else to handle?
  3. Respond: can you quickly respond with just a couple of sentences?
  4. Defer: can you put this in a ‘to do’ folder and work on it at a later time?
  5. Do: can you work on this action right now?

By categorising, filing and working on emails in this manner, you really can get to zero emails in your inbox — well, for at least a couple of minutes.

The whole idea is to put you in control and prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by an inbox full of emails that need your attention.

 

InboxZero

 

What email folders do you need?
This is ultimately up to you. But when I was testing Inbox Zero for myself, I found it helpful to have three main folders:

  • To Do
  • Follow Up
  • Archive

What are the advantages of Inbox Zero?
Once you have sorted through your existing emails and moved them into the relevant folders, you instantly feel more productive and in control. You know exactly which tasks you need to focus on, and it’s suddenly easier to do so, because you aren’t relying on your inbox as your to do list.

Daniel, director of Demand Gen here in Europe, is a total convert after using Inbox Zero for the past seven years. He put it best when he told me “Inbox Zero has changed the way I work; I’m more productive, quicker at responding to people, and faster at following up on things, which often surprises people.

One thing I would say about Inbox Zero is that you have to be flexible. Sometimes you might have a few emails in your inbox that you haven’t responded to. That’s fine. Just set some time aside to work on them. For the larger rocks that need some dedicated time, schedule a slot in your calendar. As well making you feel like you’re in control, it also prevents others from booking in meetings to your calendar.”

Final thoughts
Inbox Zero can help you stop checking your emails so frequently, stop using email as a to-do list and, most importantly, stop procrastinating. In the end though, I’ve taken the elements of Inbox Zero and added a few extra principles of my own to make this work long term.

When using Inbox Zero, I’d advise you to also:

  • Have email discipline. Focus on the task at hand and check emails infrequently. You will complete tasks quicker as a result.
  • Be considerate when sending email. Only send it to the relevant recipients. You don’t always need to CC everyone from the start of a conversation.
  • Find non-email alternative, if appropriate. If you can handle the question faster via phone, web meeting or instant messenger, do that instead.
  • Use the task functionality. Some email systems, like Microsoft Outlook, will let you mark a message as a task, which is sent to a working to-do list. Once an item is done, you can mark it as complete, which makes a great historical reference for all major items.
  • Get to the point. Be polite, but don’t dawdle on unnecessary niceties. Say what you need to in a polite way. Smileys come in handy here!
  • Unsubscribe. You’d be surprised how much of your inbox clutter comes from those spam emails you don’t read or need.

For more productivity tips, make sure you read 6 productivity tips to help you nail your to-do list.

Are you a fan of Inbox Zero? Do you have any general tips to becoming more email efficient? Please share your ideas here!

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About the author

Gemma Falconer is a Campaign Manager for LogMeIn. She is part of the EMEA marketing team and looks after the webinar programme, email nurturing and content creation for the UK. In her spare time, you'll find her diving around a volleyball court, trying to learn Portuguese and eating cake – lots of cake! Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter More blog posts by Gemma Falconer ››
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  • Daniel Waas

    I’m so glad you picked that topic for a post. As you say, I’m a total convert and people now think I’m a responsiveness rockstar, where previously they thought I was a lazy slacker (at best) or damn arrogant for ignoring them (at worst). So has it worked for you and are you sticking to it? Just curious.

    • Gemma, Citrix Interactions

      I’m certainly a convert to some of the principles of Inbox Zero
      – particularly deciding whether you can instantly respond, archive or defer
      etc. I’m not checking emails as frequently, and I also try not to “touch” an
      email too many times. Ideally I try to respond there and then so I’m not coming
      back to an email more than once. However my current ‘defer’ folder is now my
      inbox, which means I haven’t got 0 emails at any one time, but I definitely
      know that those items are things I need to action. Now I just need to persuade
      people to send less email in the first place :o)

  • Dr Alex M Grieve

    I wholly agree. I have taken this a bit further, in that I keep “deleted items” empty too.

    My temporary store, for items that I will attend to, but not immediately, is a personal folder called Aardvark. That name ensures that it is always at the top of my list of personal folders, and is easy to access and impossible to forget!

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