Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero - Nirvana

Copyright David Reber (Creative Commons)

There are over 244,000 pages on the internet with the exact phrase “Inbox Zero”, but what is Inbox Zero? I’ve talked about it before, but I wanted to give you some results as to my own experiences, so let’s start off at the beginning.

The idea behind Inbox Zero is attributed to Merlin Mann, a productivity expert and creator of “43 folders” a blog about “finding the time and attention to do your best creative work”.  Inbox Zero is the concept of reducing your inbox to zero using the following rules:

  • Delete – Delete what you will not need like that email that said job xx completed successfully.  Now that you know it did, delete the email.  OR archive the email if you can’t/won’t/are legally unable to delete it.
  • Delegate – If someone else can do it for you, send the email to them.
  • Respond – If you can send a response in less than two minutes then do so, otherwise …
  • Defer – Place the email in a “Response Required” folder and, later in the day, respond to all of the email in this folder.
  • Do – If it is something that can be done right now, do it.  If it is something that needs to be done later, put it in your calendar.

Here is Merlin’s definition for an Inbox:  a place for email that you haven’t read.  Seems kind of simple doesn’t it.

But simple and real life don’t co-exist.  Let me tell you what I have done and my successes and failures.  (Lots of failures.)

Delete – I have an email filter that takes messages sent to groups that I am part of and automatically archives those messages.  If you need to send me a message then you need to put my name specifically in the recipient list.  My team handles the email sent to the group, I handle email sent to me.  This reduces my daily inbox by about three quarters, but it still leaves over one hundred messages a day.  I also take anything that is three weeks old and archive it, read or unread.  I figure that if it is something important then someone has gotten hold of me since they sent the original note.

Delegate – OK, I still have a problem with this.  I need to delegate more.  I really, really do and I am working on it, but this is, for me, one of my failure points.

Respond – If the note is sent to me and I can respond in less than two minutes I quite often do.  Not always and therein lies my problem.  Some things require a little bit more information and it should go into the Response Required folder but …

Defer – I love deferring things.  Sometimes too much.  And, to be honest, I don’t really have a Response Required folder, I use my Inbox as the Response Required folder which kind of defeats the whole purpose.  As a result, stuff that I defer sometimes gets lost.  Not forever, just until I archive it three weeks later.

Do – I think I’m pretty good here.

So, personally, I need to do a couple of things:  create a response required folder and learn to delegate.  My inbox right now hovers around the 1000 mark for a few weeks of email with approximately 30% unread.  What I need to do is sit down in a room where people can’t find me and go through my entire inbox and get it down to zero.  The role I have in the organization says that I should be able to do this, after all, I’m a manager and I shouldn’t really be needed for operational duties.  That’s why I’m part of a team.

I’ve been at zero.  Twice.  The feeling was glorious and then we had a mild crisis and next thing I knew there was an avalanche in my inbox and I was swamped and couldn’t dig my way out.  Discipline.  It requires discipline and I need to make it happen.

2 thoughts on “Inbox Zero

  1. Hey Don, if it helps (and it may be different for you because of the sheer volume of contacts you have) I actually used my inbox as the response required folder. However I set up Outlook rules as new people hit my inbox that:
    * moved a copy of their message into an “Archive” folder with their name
    * flagged the message with a blue flag

    Which meant that if I didn’t need to do anything with the message, I deleted it right after reading it because I already had a copy of it somewhere else. If it was still something I needed to action, it was present in the inbox…nagging me…*haunting* me…till I did something with it. I’ve stayed within 10-20 Emails in the inbox for most of my career, + I manage to be able to pull out old stuff whenever I need to because I’ve saved it all (sometimes to the consternation of others who would prefer those records were forgotten, but you and I kinda like to disturb the force that way =) ).


    • If I could reduce the number of contacts that would be good. I have a similar system at home and rarely have stuff lying around that I need to action, but at work I have hundreds of contacts spread amongst multiple ministry clients. I’m going to spend some time in the next few days to rigorously go through my inbox and see if I can get down to Inbox Zero. Even if it’s just for a day I will be thrilled.

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