Getting to Inbox Zero

Do you even Zero, bro?


What if I told you that you had absolute power and control over how you spend your time and when you choose to deal with incoming messages of all kinds...? ' Coz you totally do, babe.

Merlin Mann invented the concept of "Inbox Zero" about a decade ago. You might think that this exercise necessitates having literally zero emails in your inbox. However, it's a little more lenient than that.

Here’s what it Inbox Zero actually means, as defined by Mann:

“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

I have a robust but simple folder system for all of my email platforms (professional and personal) - typically organized by clients at the office, or buckets like "bills," "orders," kids" IRL. I am also, admittedly, a tree-killing #oldlady because I print out the emails that require action on my part and put them into a physical "inbox" (it's rose gold, natch) and then I knock them out or file them over the course of my day.  I like to look at an actual empty inbox before I unplug for the night. Feels damn good. Inbox zero is only meaningful if you actually do something with the action items that come across your email.

Inbox Zero shouldn't put needless pressure on you to stop what you are doing to deal with every email or document that comes across your desk. Which is why I highly recommend the time blocking method. Block 30 minutes 1+ times per day, when it makes the most sense, to deal with your emails (respond, print, sort, file) and 30 minutes 1+ times per day to deal with your physical inbox or to-do list. Beginnings and ends of the day are ideal, but please use whatever blocking method aligns best with your flow, your circadian rhythms. Optimally, you should only be dealing with this type of intake and sorting 2x per day. And if you want to get super hardcore, and you really want this method to work, turn off your email alerts.

When you're ready to get into your emails, when it's that time of the day, quickly categorize them as you go. For example, here's how I break it down:

  • Reply/forward immediately (you know the answer, or can keep it moving)
  • Reply/forward after further research, task completion (will take more work to keep it moving)
  • File/no action needed, drag to appropriate folder for future reference (in case of CYA later)
  • Trash/no need to keep it (f that noise)

Some folks choose to get to inbox zero by creating additional folders on their email platform - like "to do - now," "pending information," etc. I tried that and personally, I just couldn't get myself in the habit of returning back to those folders to wade through everything. I'm hopelessly analog like that - I like folders and neat piles to help me to visually prioritize my work. I'm more likely to respond to something if it's in my face, not sitting in a folder. That's why my emails only get filed in folders once I've categorized them.

To paraphrase William Ernest Henley: "You are the master of your email. You are the captain of your inbox.

Your time is priceless, treat it as such. Everyone else's emergency is not your problem. Get a handle on it. Go forth and kick ass