Inbox Zero: Is it Worth the Effort?

A cluttered email box can be as distracting as a cluttered office. One way to tame the email beast: “delete, delegate, respond, defer or do” each time you open a message.

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Late December is a time of spring cleaning for many people, and that can mean clearing out the Email inbox: weed out messages that no longer need action, reply to ones that have been hanging around, file others to reference later.

For some people, though, striving for a perpetual state of an empty inbox is an ongoing habit or at least an ongoing effort.

“For me, Inbox Zero is a coping mechanism for the anxiety created by a constant flux of e-mail,” writes Silvia Killingsworth in “Zero Dark Inbox” on the New Yorker blog. “On the one hand, it feels great not to linger on past conversations; but on the other hand, I forget whole interactions as soon as they’re gone from my screen. I’ve traded short-term memory for a Googleable inbox.”

Killingsworth credits the “inbox zero” idea to Merlin Mann, a blogger whose website is “about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.” Mann gave a Google Tech Talk about Inbox Zero back in 2007 which set out the language still used by many today to talk about the habit.

Mann “breaks every decision about what to do when faced with an e-mail into five possibilities: delete, delegate, respond, defer, do,” Killingsworth explains. Processing email efficiently has an ultimate goal, Mann says, of processing it down to zero.

Mann offers some great advice at his website (although, as he warns on his About page, “Please do not use 43 Folders as an excuse to procrastinate. That would be so ironically unwholesome as to stagger the mind.”).

One of his more popular posts covers the art of writing sensible email messages. The four biggest takeaways of that post: first, be clear about whether the purpose of the email is to provide information, request information or request action. Second, get that purpose right in the first sentence. Third, make the subject line work for you (two of his examples: “Lunch resched to Friday @ 1pm” and “Thanks for the new liver–works great!”). And fourth, be brief and make sure the message fits on “one screen with no scrolling.”


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Comments (4)
Productive Physician
I think the key is to remember that MErlin Mann never meant it to mean you had zero emails in your inbox. He meant that's how much of your brain should be in your inbox.

I don't operate on a 'zero emails in inbox' philosophy, but I try to keep my inbox as empty as possible.

It usually doesn't take all that long and I can focus more on what's important if I'm clear.

I've written an extensive post about this:

Hope this helps any readers...
Joseph Lalonde
I tried and tried to keep my inbox at zero. Many experts were telling me that it was the way to go. Instead, I found myself fretting and feeling anxious over whether or not I had reached Inbox Zero. In the end, I gave up on Inbox Zero.  Now, I don't have the worry over whether or not I've emptied my inbox and I don't feel bad about it.
My email box constantly shows "10,000+ unread messages".  I let the automated retention policy take care of my inbox. I.e. delete mail older than 2 years, etc.  I scan by who then subject then decide whether to even open the email.
The answer is a resounding no. In the words of Peter Drucker "there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all." 

The solution for email overload is email prioritization that is dynamic and automatic and learns from your changing behavior. Better personal performance, less stress. 

Check out