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How To Achieve Inbox Zero

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“Inbox Zero” is said to be an idea that requires you to check your inbox often and regularly and answer, file or delete emails so that, at the end of the day, there are no unread emails in your inbox.

But in fact, the term Inbox Zero as well as the philosophy behind it, was originally coined by Merlin Mann, the founder and writer of 43 Folders, a blog about “finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.” Contrary to popular belief, the “Zero” doesn’t refer to fanatically keeping your inbox empty at all times. Instead, it refers to “the amount of time an employee’s brain is in his inbox.”

Here are some core pillars of Mann’s original view of Inbox Zero:

  • Keep your email program closed for most of the day.
  • Follow the principle of Delete, Delegate, Respond, Defer or Do when processing mail.
  • Always respond immediately to messages that can be answered in two minutes or less (this is a rule borrowed from David Allen’s popular “Getting Things Done” (GTD) productivity philosophy).

Here are five takeaways for the Inbox-zero aspirer if you choose to go that route and give it a shot

  1. Close your mail program. Leaving your email application open at all times is a recipe for disaster. The pull of those little envelopes is irresistible and will constantly distract you from other work that needs to get done. Only open your mail a few times per day, then make sure to close it again so you can focus on more important tasks.
  2. Set up mail filters. It pays to take a bit of time to create filters for recurring communication. Redirect newsletters to a “read” folder; mark emails addressed to you as more important than those on which you’re just CC’d; assign priority to specific senders — there are tons of other rules you can set up in a matter of minutes that will save you hours over the course of months.
  3. Keep it simple. While letting all mail sit in your inbox might not work for everyone, there’s no need to create a super complex folder structure. You’ll spend more time filing and archiving everything than the time you’ll spend searching. Just keep a simple system with perhaps a few main folders, and you should be golden.
  4. Don’t touch twice. Once opened, process the mail. Delete, Delegate, Respond, Defer or Do. Letting it sit there without taking any action ensures double work. You’ll have to reread it at a later stage and will again be faced with making a decision on it. This is one reason why avoiding mail on mobile is not a bad idea; you often end up reading and processing the same mails again when you get to your computer.
  5. Beware of Zero-obsession. The purpose of Inbox Zero is to clear your head and make sure there’s no feeling of anxiety about unread emails slipping through the cracks. It’s easy though to get obsessed with seeing the bottom of your mailbox by the end of every single day. This creates anxiety about not reaching Zero, which defies the purpose of applying Inbox Zero in the first place. Don’t get obsessed; it’s OK if you get to Zero once a week or so.


Inbox Zero might not be for you. In fact, there are plenty of people that aspire to the Inbox Infinity approach that is more laissez-faire and less about diligently watching your email inbox and excising the nonsense. Some say, just let it flow and flow and don’t worry so much about it. But if you are up for giving Inbox Zero a shot, the above information should get you on your way.

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