Inbox zero: 6 tips for living outside the box
Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. They all mean one thing: nothing.
While the old adage “something is better than nothing” rings true most of the time, zero seems to be the magic number when it comes to managing that endless flood of email.
That, in a nutshell, is the concept behind the term “inbox zero”. Or is it?
What is inbox zero?
Productivity expert Merlin Mann coined the phrase back in 2004, and while the idea of whittling down the number of unread, stress-inducing emails to zero every day sounds amazing, is it a reality—or even a necessity?
The fact is: A lot has changed since 2004. Whether you own a small business, work in an office, run a family or go to college—we all have to wrangle with multiple email addresses, a barrage of incoming text messages, not to mention DMs from Teams, Slack, Facebook, Twitter and beyond.
“Even Mann now says people completely missed the point of getting to inbox zero. The “zero”, he says, actually refers to “the amount of time an employee’s brain is in his inbox” and not to the amount of email3.”
Regardless, plenty of die-hard, inbox-zero disciples still work tirelessly to reach the pinnacle of nothingness, while, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the weary have given up on managing their email entirely.
Perhaps there’s a happy medium.
Inbox zero… with a twist
Here, you’ll find some modified concepts that can go a long way in getting your brain to inbox-zero mode, without it getting tangled up in a particular number:
1. Delete the junk, but don’t stop there.
This is one of the easiest steps to take, especially in your personal email. The deluge of spam, promotional emails, etc. are often easily recognizable, and therefore, easily discarded. Most people just delete and move on, which is fine for suspicious emails that shouldn’t be opened. But if you take a few extra steps, it could save you a lot of time in the long run:
- Before you delete your spam, make sure you report it as spam so you stop getting any future emails.
- As for those annoying email ads, it may be time to rethink your subscriptions. Before you delete it, just open the email, scroll down, click on the link at the bottom to unsubscribe (this may take you to another page where you’ll need to finish unsubscribing), then delete the email.
- Set up spam filters. Many popular email providers have settings that let you set up low-, medium- or high-level spam restrictions, based on your personal preferences.
- To completely cut out most junk, choose a trusted email provider that doesn’t use your email, calendar, or other personal content to target ads to you.
2. Don’t mix business with pleasure.
You already receive a deluge of work-related email. The last thing you need is to sift through casual conversations or group chats with family and friends. Reserve work email only for colleagues and clients. Of course, there are always exceptions, like giving both your work and personal email to your child’s school, a family caregiver, etc. as an emergency contact.
3. Say bye, bye to contact groups.
We all deal with this. Endless emails, DMs or meeting notifications via distribution lists you happen to be part of, but rarely ever work on. If this is the case, it may be time to politely bow out. Sending a respectful DM or email to the team telling them you’re unsubscribing is perfectly acceptable. Ask them, instead, to email or message you with anything directly pertaining to you.
4. If you can say it face to face, do it.
How many times have you sat at your desk and IM’d or emailed someone sitting three desks away? We all do it—but it’s adding to the email madness. Next time you need to convey a message, do it in person. It often takes less time than emailing or messaging back and forth. That person will likely return the favor moving forward.
5. Know the three D’s.
Now that you’ve gotten through all the delete-worthy messages, it’s time to take one of three actions with your remaining email:
- Do it. This is the least time-consuming type of message and one you should never put off—if it’s something you can do quicky. For example, a colleague wants to make sure your calendar is up to date in order to schedule a meeting for Friday at 10am. You know it is, so respond “yes” immediately and delete. When the meeting invite comes, accept it quickly and move on.
- Delegate it. While many of us like to take the helm when it comes to a certain project or event—it’s important to know when to delegate those requests to someone else. After you cc this person on the original request, ask them to reach out with any questions or comments, but otherwise, they will be the contact person moving forward. Not only does it free up your time, it also frees up your inbox.
- Delay it. This is the toughest one, because there’s no immediate closure. You’ve been asked to do something—but you know it’ll take some time to get it done, possibly more follow-up questions or meetings. In this case, respond as quickly as possible but keep the email front-and-center in your inbox and mark it according to low, medium or high priority.
Many times, you’ll get the same requests,
leaving you to respond the same way over and over. Consider creating templated responses for these
types of requests. For example, I often get daily internal requests from project managers asking
who’s available to work on an upcoming project and when. I want to respond quickly, letting them
know I got the email but don’t yet have an answer. So, I created a template that looks like this. I
send it along, then save the original email and mark it according to priority:
6. Block time for checking messages.
Rather than leaving your inbox open and responding to messages on demand, consider checking it in blocks. While this won’t work in some businesses or professions—most people should be able to limit it to three blocks a day, making life more manageable:
- Morning. First, delete and/or unsubscribe to spam or promotional email, then scroll through and scan for high-priority email (requests from clients, supervisors, etc.) and respond as needed.
- Afternoon. Before or after lunch, delete and/or unsubscribe to spam or promotional email. Scan for the medium-priority items and respond as needed. Check for follow-up tasks from the morning’s high-priority items and respond.
- Evening. Before leaving for the night, delete and/or unsubscribe to spam or promotional email. Scan for any unresolved emails from your high- and medium-priority category and respond. Finally, take care of any low-priority email you didn’t get to.
While these strategies alone are unlikely to completely empty your folders—that’s not really the goal. The most important outcome is the ability to quickly and confidently manage your messages, lower your stress levels, and help you live outside the inbox.