Inbox Zero

Nothing annoys me more than having friends gloat on Facebook or Twitter that they’ve gotten their email inboxes down to zero.

In my entire history of using email, I’ve accomplished inbox zero maybe 3 times. Once with a brand-new email account, so that may not even count.

Having a good intranet can certainly help cut down on emails. You don’t have to email documents as attachments, for example.

But on the other hand, the intranet can lead to more emails, especially if you set up automatic email notifications.

Clearly, intranet or not, we cannot escape from emails.

Having several full inboxes doesn’t bother me. But for most, it seems that inbox zero has some appeal.

What’s the Big Deal About an Empty In-box Anyway?

For example, Merlin Mann, the guy who came up with the phrase (and a methodology for achieving it) “inbox zero” to begin with, says an empty inbox helps allocate our finite and irreplaceable time and attention. In other words, you get more stuff done.

Others say an empty inbox relieves their stress.

Finally, being able to annihilate 12,891 emails apparently brings feelings of freedom and accomplishment, still others say.

If this is true, then I’m missing a lot!

Should I give this zero inbox thing another try?

3 Approaches to Process Your Inbox to Zero

The general idea to achieving an empty inbox is to process it to zero. Touch an email only once, or as little as possible, decided which actions they require. As you do what is needful, the email is removed from the inbox.

Getting Things Done

The first time I ever tried to process email was when I read David Allen’s “Getting Things Done.”

Allen’s recommendation is to handle everything as minimally as possible by following a workflow. Respond to an email only if it can be done in two minutes or less. Place other emails in folders:

  • @waiting for – for delegated items that need to be tracked or followed up on
  • @action – for emails that require action

All other emails are either filed or deleted.

By following this workflow, you can quickly empty your inbox.

Inbox Zero

Merlin Mann, writer and founder of 43 folders productivity site, was inspired by GTD when he came up with his own system, better known as Inbox Zero. In fact, Mann began an entire movement of people striving to get to inbox zero.

Mann’s approach is also to process emails once to get them out of your inbox. The following are the possible actions on each email:

  • delete or archive – Either erase the email or file it away in a folder. Mann warns against having so many folders that you’ll forget which folder is the right one. Keep your archives simple.
  • delegate – Forward the email for someone else to work on. Put a reminder for you somewhere, to follow up on that task later on.
  • respond – As in the GTD system, if you can respond to an email quickly, do so and get it over with. Learn to reply in 1-2 sentences, certainly not more than 5.
  • defer – If an email needs your response, but requires outside work that can’t be completed in a couple of minutes, put it in a “to respond” folder. Empty that folder at the end of every day.
  • do – Do what needs to be done, or capture it into a calendar or task list. Don’t use your email inbox as a to-do lit.


This is a variation to GTD and Inbox Zero, which was created by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.

In the Yesterbox approach, you process yesterday’s emails today. You read that write. See Hsieh’s premise is that today’s to-do list actually came from yesterday’s inbox.

The possible actions to yesterday’s emails are:

  • reply
  • file
  • delete
  • calendar

If you’re itching to look at today’s email, there is an “escape.” Process 10 of yesterday’s emails, and you get a free pass to read today’s emails. However, you can only either delete, file, or forward yesterday’s emails. You cannot reply to them. Unless an email absolutely cannot wait 48 hours, leave it alone. It is not your problem today; deal with it tomorrow.

Obviously, Yesterbox is not applicable for certain people, like those in customer support.

There’s a long list of “rules” in Yesterbox. You can read them here.

There’s an App for That

The popularity of processing email inboxes to zero have inspired the creation of applications that make such processing easier and faster.

An example is the web app, Mailstrom. It interacts with your email accounts and analyzies them so you can easily see which emails are useful and which ones can be deleted. You can sort emails by sender, subject line, file size, etc.

Mailbox is an iOS app that only works with Gmail so far. With this app, you easily process emails with a quick swipe of your finger.

With 78,373 emails in my Gmail inbox alone, it overwhelms me to even think of getting to inbox zero. But I have been processing my emails differently, using a combination of GTD and Inbox Zero. I’m surprised at how quickly I can process my emails and get them out of my inbox. The only problem is the emails from previous months. Maybe I should just mass delete them?

How about you? What does your inbox look like? How do you manage your emails? Do share!

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