How to Achieve Inbox Zero — And How It Helps Your Productivity
Everybody has been through it. It’s Friday afternoon, your brain is fried and you just need a little reprieve from work. You’ve been going through emails all day – in an inbox that is constantly ebbing and flowing in the hundreds–and your eyes are blurry and tired. Then, there it is… like magic. The number next to “Inbox” in your email account is zero. A big ol’ goose egg. Moments ago you were dying and everything hurt, but now you are the champion of the world.
Red inbox alerts are the bane of almost everyone’s existence. As the number climbs, so does anxiety and the need to avoid work altogether. Once you go in, will you ever come out of that inbox? Will there ever be an end in sight? Reaching inbox zero is the stuff of dreams, and the giddiness that ensues is worth shuffling through all of those messages, no matter how painful it feels while it’s happening.
What is the Inbox Zero Method?
Inbox Zero is a method based on this phenomenon. It is a developed habit that helps you handle your email inbox. It keeps your inbound messages at a low number, if not zero, at all times. (Because who doesn’t want to feel those goosebumps every day of the week?)
Developed by productivity expert Merlin Mann in 2004, this theory has been around almost as long as the internet has been available to the public. Since then, it has expanded depending on the circumstance you find yourself in. Those who use it for personal email may have a slightly different approach than those who use it in their professional inbox, but the bones of achieving it are still very similar. Working into an Inbox Zero method of your own can be a little stressful as well. It is a practice that takes some getting used to, but it isn’t impossible.
The Inbox Zero Method, as developed by Mann, includes four simple steps. Delete, Delegate, Defer, and Do.
When an email is not essential to your work or the task at hand, simply delete it. It’s perfectly acceptable to get rid of things that do not serve you. For those who are perfectionists and want to ensure all emails are responded to in due time, it might even be a little painful. It requires you to prioritize the importance of your emails and encourages you to delete ones that do not serve those priorities. If the sender chooses to follow up, then you can decide at that time if it is something you’d like to address or not.
While this may not apply to most if someone else on your team can best handle an email or inquiry, feel free to forward it–or delegate it–to them. In roles where you are not managing a team, it could feel weird to pass something on to a coworker or boss, but it is also a totally acceptable workplace practice.
If there are emails that you cannot get to quite yet, or they are slated for a future project, create a folder in your email client to store them. You don’t want it to lay unseen and unattended, and you can always visit that tab or folder later. For those who do not organize their inboxes past the run-of-the-mill “inbox,” “sentbox” and “trash,” feel free to flag or star these messages.
For emails that are timely and topical, just respond. Get your answers as swiftly as you can and craft an email. Keep it brief to cover your bases quickly, and feel amazing when the email is completely taken care of.
Benefits to Achieving Inbox Zero
There are so many wonderful benefits to achieving Inbox Zero. In a time when mental health is a clear priority in the workspace, it is important to prioritize the little things that will help you feel calm and steady at work and at home. A handful of reasons to work toward this method are:
- When you are set at Inbox Zero, people will fawn over your work ethic. You will absolutely feel like you are on top of the world.
- Achieving Inbox Zero will make the influx of messages each workday feel far more manageable in your day. (After all, it seems like there is never enough time.)
- Know that you have responded to everyone who is waiting on you to make decisions and move forward with assignments, etc.
Be a reliable coworker and friend. After all, no one likes to be ghosted. And sometimes the items in your inbox are super time-sensitive.
- Leaving them in there could keep you from experiences, projects and other big opportunities.
- Reduce instances of anxiety that are associated with certain red circles and 2, 3, and even 4 digit numbers reflected on your desktop and phone. It can be almost impossible to carry a phone with email inboxes on it if you are trying to avoid climbing inbox numbers.
Here are a few key resources to help you achieve Inbox Zero in a time crunch, and keep it that way for good.
Use your search function
If you know that you do not want to open emails that refer to certain topics, feel free to type that topic or related keywords into your search function. Your email will pop up all of the unopened messages that contain that keyword, and you can mass delete them. Once again, this helps extensively with inboxes that are pitched by media outlets and companies on a regular basis.
If a newsletter is no longer serving you or you have been added to a mass email list that does not benefit you whatsoever, go through and unsubscribe. It can be annoying to find the small print at the bottom of the email and go through the one-to-fifteen-step process of taking yourself off of a list, but it is totally worth it.
Another great method to unsubscribe from newsletters and regular emails from similar accounts (catalogs, ads, marketing emails, company pitches, etc.) is Unroll.me. You can sign up for a free account with almost any email server and go through the list to unsubscribe from multiple unnecessary options very quickly.
Some people find themselves typing or copying and pasting the same string of sentences repeatedly throughout their day. If you are one of those people, consider creating templates inside your email hosting platform. Pitches, responses to pitches, and weekly updates to the team can apply to so many instances of communication throughout your workweek. This way, you can quickly add an email without taking the time to track it down in an outside document or notes on your computer, adjust where you need to and get it sent very quickly.
Another way to save time and streamline your communications is by sending out weekly updates as a mass email to the people on your team. Even if you’re using a template, it doesn’t make sense to manually send the same email to multiple people across your company.
Set yourself up for success in this area by scheduling time to go through your emails every workday. For some people, this could take 15 minutes a day. For others–especially those of us who receive pitches in our inbox at every hour of the day–it could be slightly more challenging.
To start–especially if you have a large number of emails in your inbox–schedule an hour or so. We would suggest nabbing the items after your prioritized daily tasks, about mid-day. That way, people will have space to respond where they need to throughout the day. For those who feel like this is too big of an ask to approach, there are other methods. Whatever you do, try not to allow this time to bleed into your home life or after hours. It is, after all, a work item and should be able to fit into your regular workday.