Inbox Zero is a methodology for keeping your email inbox empty, or close to empty, at all times. It is a good way of making sure that you are on top of what is going on and a perfect partner if you are doing GTD.
The expression Inbox Zero was first used by Merlin Mann in the mid-2000. Merlin Mann is the man behind the website 43Folders. The name 43 folders is the name of the paper-based tickler file system with surprise; 43 folders.
The definition of Zero
In today’s world, it is impossible to keep your email inbox totally empty at all times. I find that if combine the number of private and work related emails I get around 80 to 100 emails every day. That is one new email every 15 minutes. I think that the most important element in Inbox Zero is to completely empty your inbox or inboxes at least once every day or so. If I have some ongoing burning issues that I need to work on or check in on several times a day, I might let the 2-3 emails related to this topic stay in my inbox for the time it takes to resolve the issue.
The conclusion is that zero are not always equivalent to the mathematical definition of the number, but I think you get the concept.
The problem with email
In an ever more connected world email has gone from being the ultimate form of communication to, for a growing number of people, the ultimate source of frustration. It is a paradox that most people have the least amount of formal training and knowledge in the tool they spend the most time using: Microsoft Outlook.
Considering that, for many people, email is the tool they use to make a first impression on a potential customer. It is the tool that is being used for discussing problems and communicating important messages. Yet, some people go trough their career miss-managing email.
Why Inbox Zero?
Have you ever found an email in your inbox that has been completely overlooked or forgotten? Have you ever had to do some kind of crises management because you forgot to act on an email? Have you ever experienced the nagging feeling that buried in your inbox is some form of potential crises that you are unaware of?
I think that I have listed three good arguments for total control of your inbox, but I’ll give you one more: I will never forget the first time I had a completely empty inbox. I had never seen so much white space in Outlook before, I even had to check if I still was connected to the server. The feeling of having total control was just so good. It was then that I really realized how long it had been since the last time I was confident that I did not have any open loops that I was not aware of. The monster that I had felt was living in my inbox was finally gone.
Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done
Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done (GTD) are the perfect partners. If you are unfamiliar with Getting Things Done, please see my post Getting Things Done – What is it?.
I use Inbox Zero to force myself to go trough step 2 and 3 in GTD.
Step 2: Clarify.
Find out what it means. Is this actionable? If no, trash it or file it. If yes, start by asking yourself what is the next action?
Step 3: Organize.
Get your items into the right list and set appropriate reminders.
Getting started with Inbox Zero
Unless you are changing jobs or have just had a total hard drive crash, having to go trough your entire inbox may seem like an impossible task. If you were to start off like that, you will never get to zero. The trick is to start with item 1 below.
- Move the entire contents of your inbox to a separate folder, so that you can process the contents of this folder in between your inbox.
- Forget the complicated folder structure. The search function is so much better today compared to when you figured out your current system. Take advantage of that. Make ONE single archive folder.
- Make a keyboard shortcut for archiving email. In Outlook this is called a Quick Step.
- Define your inbox as a “clean zone”. You do not want any clutter.
- Set off time to handle email, at least two times every day.
- Practice item 1, 2 and 5 relentlessly.
You do not have to, but I would highly recommend seeing the first 31 minutes of this video of Merlin Manns lecture at Googleplex. It is fun and packed with anecdotes about email.