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Achieving inbox zero is easier than you think

Kaleigh Moore 8 min read
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There are two types of people in the world: Those who keep their inboxes organized, and those with 250 unread messages. Which type are you?

(You don’t have to answer that question.)

If we’re going to be completely honest with ourselves, there are probably a lot more of us with untidy inboxes than organized ones. As such, you might want to consider adopting the Inbox Zero approach.

In this post, we’re going to look at what Inbox Zero is, what it isn’t, and how you can use it to enhance your productivity. Let’s get started.

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More than an empty inbox

The first thing that comes to mind when most people see the term Inbox Zero is the image of an up-to-date inbox that isn’t bogged down with unread messages. You might even think of an empty inbox where all of your emails are archived or sorted to relevant folders.

You’re not far off base. However, the “zero” in Inbox Zero doesn’t actually refer to the number of messages you have in your inbox. It actually references how long it takes you to use your inbox.

Inbox Zero is actually a productivity system developed by writer and podcast host Merlin Mann as a way to reduce distractions and improve your efficiency and­­­­––you guessed it––productivity.

So how does it work?

The nuts and bolts of Inbox Zero

The goal of Inbox Zero is to minimize the amount of time you waste when you’re using your emails.

A study by McKinsey found that the average worker spends nearly 30% of their time checking and answering emails. On top of that, constantly refreshing your emails can waste as much as 21 minutes of your day.

Combine that with the fact that the average professional interrupts their work 15 times throughout the day to look at their inbox, and it’s clear to see how emails can be a huge burden on our productivity. That’s where Inbox Zero comes in.

According to Mann, the best way to minimize email distractions is to keep an empty inbox. We know what you’re already thinking: “I thought you said Inbox Zero isn’t about the number of messages in your inbox.”

It isn’t, but maintaining a clear inbox certainly doesn’t hurt. Mann also believes that you should:

  • Delete the emails that aren’t important
  • Respond ASAP to the emails that do matter
  • Forward emails that you can delegate to someone else

If it looks simplified, that’s because it is. Under this approach, you’re not reading your emails, you’re processing them. The reason for this terminology is because you’re not expected to read every email word for word during the processing phase. Instead, you should scan your emails and choose one of the following five actions:

  1. Remove the email: If the email doesn’t contain important information, get rid of it by deleting it or archiving it. The point is that it shouldn’t stay in your inbox.
  2. Delegate when possible: If you receive an email that you think someone else is better equipped to respond to, forward it to them.
  3. Reply to the email: If you can respond in two minutes or less, reply to the email immediately.
  4. Defer your action: If the email takes longer than two minutes to read and/or respond to, defer the action to a scheduled time during the day where you can read more thoroughly and write an appropriate response.
  5. Do your task: If an email requires you to do a quick, sub-two-minute action like scheduling an event in your calendar, do it immediately. If the action takes longer than two minutes, defer it.

As you perform these steps, be sure to archive your messages or move them into a different folder or label so that your inbox stays at zero.

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Does it work?

The thing to keep in mind with productivity systems is that there’ll never be a one-size-fits-all solution. Inbox Zero works brilliantly for some people, but others might find the idea of constantly organizing their inbox frustrating. Some people might even be so determined to take Inbox (1) down to Inbox Zero that they wind up wasting as much time as they would with a cluttered inbox.

“Project Zero inbox depends on your personality type,” said marketer Michelle Urban, who works with tech companies at her company Marketing 261. “Regardless of your inbox anxiety level, don’t be on inbox watch. Only check email (also Slack) at designated times throughout the day. For me, I check it three times. Things can wait.”

The Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) suggests when we exhaust our mental energy, we’re less likely to make good decisions, learn new information, and create long-term memories. As such, maintaining an empty inbox can cut back on some of those distractions that chip away at your mental energy. Plus, trying to find important information in a cluttered inbox with 250+ unread messages and thousands of unsorted emails can be overwhelming for most people, which comes with its own set of problems.

The more you learn about Inbox Zero, the more you’ll come across people who’re either passionately for or against it. Here are a few different takes from people who’ve tried it out:

  • “Achieving Inbox Zero doesn’t matter to me. Actually, the thought of it gives me anxiety.” –Adrienne Barnes, Content Strategist for B2B SaaS companies
  • “My inbox is always flooded with emails and I believe that this is true for almost every other person. It’s more about keeping your composure and concentrating on what’s important and not losing your mind over the non-important ones.” – Aabhas Vijay, Founder of email marketing blog SMTPServers
  • “For me, it’s more about inbox harmony, clear communication, and not feeling overwhelmed. Set expectations about what happens, where, and what the channel used says about response time expectations. Don’t let the garbage in to begin with–set up filters and block spam instead of just deleting. And last: Don’t keep email open on your desktop. Check twice a day–mindfully–and triage.” -Andrew Rosch, Marketing at TrekBikes
  • “I aim for zero stress email over inbox zero email. If the emails left in your inbox don’t stress you out or negatively impact your work, spending time organizing them is probably not the most effective use of your time.” –Brittany Berger, Productivity Expert
  • Achieving inbox zero gets even more complicated when you manage multiple email accounts. Switching between accounts and forwarding emails gives me anxiety. Luckily, there are solutions that allow managing all emails in one place.” – Kasia from Mailbird

    • “Inbox Zero is the most important aspect of my career and keeping clients delighted. My number one tip is to use a task management system to schedule emailed tasks and to mark emails as read.” Gregory Petrossian, Business Intelligence Professional at CSGPro

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Other things to know about Inbox Zero

As we previously noted, maintaining zero can be distracting enough by itself. The Inbox Zero principle doesn’t have its own safeguards against over-checking your emails, which is why we recommend using it alongside a system that cuts back on email distractions altogether. This will keep you from being on defense all day as you field incoming messages.

  • Schedule a time to check your emails. One popular method is to check emails two times during the day: Once in the morning, and once again in the afternoon.
  • Turn off your mobile alerts. Switch your phone on silent or “do not disturb” mode to avoid seeing email notifications until you’re ready to.
  • Look into an app like Inbox Pause that removes email distractions for you.

Also, consider using mail filters to cut back on unnecessary inbox clutter. Have your favorite newsletters sent to a folder that isn’t shared with your inbox, make emails sent directly to you receive a higher priority label than those where you’re just CCed, and flag specific email addresses in your contact list as high and low priority.

These tips will help you block out those distracting emails, regardless of whether you’re following Inbox Zero or Inbox Everything.

Should I try Inbox Zero?

The answer to this question really depends on you. If you’re someone who likes order and routine, you’ll probably like the organization that comes with adopting Inbox Zero.

However, if you’re not that efficient with managing your emails already, don’t expect this approach to magically fix that. It takes work to stick with Inbox Zero, so you’ll need to learn how to be more efficient if you want to maximize its benefits.

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Kaleigh is an experienced writer on all things SAAS at She is a Forbes + Vogue Business retail contributor on her free time.
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