“It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life. That “zero?” It’s not how many messages are in your inbox–it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.” – Merlin Mann
Over almost two decades, I have used email in mass quantities. During this period, a lot has happened in the world — family tragedies, global politics, pandemics, external pressure to have a certain number of updates delivered to us each day, and more. Email for me has moved from being a novelty, to a safety net, to an anxiety inducing seemingly inescapable crutch, and finally - with the use of inbox zero, into the useful tool it was designed to be.
Inbox zero is a tactic used when organizing or decluttering your messages to your inbox. The basic idea is to get to the point where there are no unread messages, and to also stay at that state, removing the stress of emails and allowing you to focus on productive work.
If you've ever felt like emails are preventing you from doing work, or that you must ignore your inbox for a while to get anything done - then inbox zero is for you.
It's a method to declutter your inbox, so that you can stay focused when you have important or urgent messages waiting for you. It's also a way of saying "no" to some of the messages that don't matter as much when you come across them.
Inbox zero is useful if you find that you are getting hundreds of similar messages daily. This might be the case if you have a mailing list with many members, or you manage a product or service to many people. I've averaged a new email every 30 seconds over a 24 hour period, this kind of inbox is impossible for any human to manage without employing some clever tactics – or simply allowing it to build up to gargantuan levels of unread emails.
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." - Albert Einstein
How do I get to Inbox Zero?
This isn't going to be a quick process and can take time (months? Years?), however when you break it down it really is a simple idea.
Step 1. Delete! As aforementioned, the number one rule of getting to Inbox Zero is deleting. Until you've got a good number of messages in the trash, you aren't going to have a chance at getting to Inbox Zero.
Step 2. Scan! Your next step is scanning these messages. This can be a bit time consuming, but you shouldn't have too much trouble. It's best done first thing in the morning before things get started. Take some time and be unavailable for the task, it will pay off in the long run.
Step 3. Sort! When you're finished scanning, you've got a few options here. You can delete these messages, leaving you with a nice "Outbox" (New messages) and "Inbox" (Scanned messages)
You can file these messages away in a filing system. Most people use folders, though some rely more on tags. I personally use tag, so I can find things quickly.
Unsubscribing from all mailing lists you never read. Not doing this is a bad choice, as you'll cluttering up your inbox for no good reason.
Also, worth noting that, flagging messages allows you to classify them based on your own judgement call. For example, if you only have time to read important messages, you can flag them as important. If you only have time to read non-important messages, you can do the same for those. It's up to you to decide which ones you want to pay attention to, and work them when it’s convenient.
You can also do a combination of the previous options.
The next and important part is taking time away from your inbox and allowing yourself time to concentrate on productive work. This step isn't going to be easy and at first you're probably not going to enjoy it. If you find that you're having problems at work due to your Inbox Zero antics, or you're getting stressed out at work, it might be time to stop, and try a different approach.
If time spent in an inbox is time that isn't productive. If you can reach Inbox Zero, then your work life will thank you in the long run.