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Why reaching Inbox Zero is so hard

Inbox Zero – it’s a productivity benchmark, the Holy Grail of the connected lifestyle. And yet it’s so elusive for many busy professionals.

The term Inbox Zero was first coined by writer, speaker and productivity expert Merlin Mann. It’s an approach to email management in which you aim to keep your inbox empty – or as empty as you can – at all times. This is where the term “Inbox Zero” comes from. 

The average corporate worker receives about 105 emails a day and more than a quarter of workers’ time is spent reading and replying to emails. The need for a better way to manage our relationship with our email inbox is obvious and inevitable. 

So what is different about Inbox Zero? According to Mann, Inbox Zero allows you to distinguish between your to-do list and your inbox, and to boost your productivity. It also allows you to manage time and attention – which are both finite resources that you want to make the most of during your work day. 

Some of us reach the zen state of zero emails that comes along with the satisfaction of knowing that all that needs your attention has been dealt with or filed away. But this is only for a few fleeting moments, and the start of the next workday surely starts with a fresh flow of emails. 

No matter how aggressively you handle your incoming mail, it just doesn’t seem to stick. Inbox Zero is more like Inbox 50 for most of us.

But is Inbox Zero really about having no emails in your inbox? 

Not really. The man who coined the concept of Inbox Zero says so himself

“It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life. That ‘zero?’ It’s not how many messages are in your inbox – it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.” ~ Merlin Mann

So let’s get this clear: Inbox Zero is not about the actual number of emails in your inbox. It’s about the attention that you’re diverting from other important tasks to those emails that are constantly nagging at you because you need to do something about them. These are the kind of emails you’re probably dealing with on a daily basis. If you’re at a loss for how to deal with them, here are a few solutions. 

Emails that need action, but not until later

A majority of emails that stay sitting in your inbox as tasks are probably in this category.

You know what you need to do with the message, but it’s not urgent enough to work on it right now.

These important (but not urgent) messages can’t disappear from your view.

Because, after all, they are important.

So you keep them around and they sit silently in a sea of your other unread messages.

You spend cognitive stamina each time you skip them over in your inbox and think to yourself, “Oh yeah, I was going to do this today.”

Solution: instead of parking those emails in your inbox, add the tasks in your task management tool. But if an email takes less than two minutes to deal with, get it done right away.

Multiple related email threads on one project

A lot of times, multiple email threads come in over the course of a week on a single project.

And because you kept the first email thread of the project in your inbox (you had planned to do something about it later), the additional threads also get parked there because they’ve got more context and the latest detail on the work.

Solution: don’t park the first email in your inbox to begin with. Add it as a task in your task manager, and then add subtasks for the email threads that follow. 

Work-in-progress attachment emails

If part of your work is spent handling, editing, updating, and delivering attachments (spreadsheets, presentations, proposals), then you’re probably parking versions of attachments in your inbox.

This gets compounded when you’re working with other coworkers on the same document:

“Who’s got the latest version of the presentation?”

“Oh I do – I’m just adding to it and I’ll email it to you when I’m done.”

Sound familiar?

Solution: if you need to collaborate with team members on documents, use Google Docs. It has a very useful commenting tool and you can collaborate in real time. For file sharing (but not collaborating), Dropbox is a great solution. And you can make it easier for each other and reduce the number of emails with attachments by attaching your documents to your tasks in your task management app. 

Emails that need more thinking

Finding time to think in busy, fast paced workplace can be challenging.

So when you get an email and are unsure what to do about it, chances are that it needs more thinking time.

Much of what gets parked in your inbox requires more thinking, planning, and finally a decision on what to do about it. The lack of an outcome on the email keeps it in your inbox until you’re able to find time to decide what you want to do with the message – which can often take a while.

Solution: keep a list of research/thinking/ideas that have potential in your task management app instead of keeping all those emails in your inbox. 

How to reach Inbox Zero – the state of mind, not the number 

Merlin Mann offers five simple actions to tame your inbox: 

  • Delete
  • Delegate
  • Respond
  • Defer
  • Do

Inbox Zero: Action-Based Email from merlinmann

There’s also a great tool for all those subscription emails that you still want to read, but don’t want clogging your inbox. It’s Unroll.me, an app we’ve written about in our roundup of 2014’s must-have productivity apps. It takes all those emails that are neither important, nor urgent, but you still want to read, rolls them up and sends them to you in a daily digest delivered at the time of your choosing. 

As you manage your inbox, try to decide within a few seconds which of the actions above you’re going to take. If you can’t decide right away, then defer them. Your task management tool will be your best friend in categorizing and managing the actions you need to take regarding your emails. 

Don’t waste your cognitive RAM on glaring over the same emails that need action later. Instead, choose to deal with them in your own time. 

What’s your experience with Inbox Zero? Have you been able to stick to a full week with an empty inbox?

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