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Inbox Zero – Proven Tips To Tame Your Email For Maximum Productivity

Inbox Zero – Proven Tips To Tame Your Email For Maximum Productivity

The first time I considered working through my inbox methodically, Microsoft was beta-testing a new feature in its email service: focus mode. The algorithm would place essential mail in a separate view, presumably saving you some time. I quickly found that my idea of essential mail was markedly different from the algorithm’s. So I ditched it fast, opting to open individual emails and determine for myself what mattered. But the idea of being intentional in my approach has stayed with me since.

It turns out there’s a whole body of work on inbox management. On closer inspection, these all gravitate towards one seminal contribution. It is a remarkably (and defiantly) simple idea for getting back control of your inbox. 

What is Inbox Zero?

It’s hard to know how to respond to twenty or more emails. At a glance, this seems like twenty or more individual demands on your time and attention. And since time and attention are finite, this inevitably leads to being overwhelmed. Speaking on a Google tech talk, the inventor of Inbox Zero explains:

You need to find ways to honour where your time and attention go

Merlin Mann

He proposes processing to zero. Here’s how.

You want to decide on a response to each inbox item. Since the responses fall into a short list of action categories (typically less than five), this processing phase translates a comprehensive inbox into a few possible actions, resulting in clarity and direction.

Another crucial benefit to processing is that you’re not distracted by previous messages. Distraction happens when you’re tempted to peek at already read messages. It takes time to get back to what you were doing before the distraction occurred. With Inbox Zero this wouldn’t be possible since already read messages would have been processed and categorised.

Importantly, responding does not necessarily mean replying. Indeed the first response category Merlin shared in his speech was the all-important delete. This leads to the truth that not all emails require your time or attention (or at least not in equal measure).   

Real-World Tips For Transitioning To Inbox Zero

It’s all good to suggest the Inbox Zero method. It makes perfect sense. But does it stand up to a reality check? In reality, most people are email-rich and time-poor. Here’s two tried and tested techniques I’ve used to de-clutter my inbox. 

  1. Automate: I’ve used rules to sort through both incoming emails and existing ones. They are incredibly effective at filtering out the type of emails that don’t require a reply. You’ll find these to be in the vast majority. Rules are like bots working for you. They can pick out emails with specific words in the subject line, ideal for automated notifications. They can also locate emails sent to a group to which you belong. Since these are not sent to you specifically, they are good to know but rarely require a reply. 
  2. Archive: As a rule of thumb, there’s a time frame in which emails need to get actioned. I would archive anything older than this on the assumption that it’s no longer relevant. By archiving dated emails, you can avoid having to sort through them. Notably, archived emails are not deleted, so they’re always within reach if needed.

For a deep dive into Inbox Zero techniques for Gmail (including automation), have a look at Jeff Su’s youtube video on the topic. He’s a trusted source of productivity hacks and he shares these resources on his channel. 

On Email

For its age, email technology has shown remarkable staying power. Despite being in a space with no shortage of substitutes (instant messaging and social media have had a field day since email first came along), email still manages to be in a league of its own. While the underlying technology has barely evolved, interest in email continues to fuel conversation and debate on best practices and etiquette. 

Email will always hold special significance. It effectively democratised online communication by making everyone with an email address instantly reachable. It’s still doing just that. 

See Also

But like every tool, getting the most out of it requires some basic (and applied) know-how. Inbox Zero is by far the most popular and credible thesis here. 

Automation tools are available for added function. In this regard, it helps to view automation as the complement and not the competition. It’s tempting to get lost in all the exciting possibilities that come with automation, but that would be prioritising form over function. 

When it comes to inbox management, there’s an adage I find especially fitting:

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

Leonardo da Vinci

View Comment (1)
  • I’ve always struggled to get on board with automation as I like to go through everything in my inbox to determine the best course of action: read and reply, read and ignore, delete, unsubscribe etc. You’ve certainly given me an idea of how to manage some of my read emails: archive!

    Great article as always.

    xo Stephanie

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