Inbox Zero: The Myth, The Legend

Email gives us a lot: communication with our teams, important updates, and the occasional panic attack. Ever experienced Sunday Night Syndrome—that feeling right before the week starts when you dread what your inbox might look like in the morning? We’re at the point where emailing as a primary form of communication is impossible to avoid, which means we’re constantly inundated with messages. This is where Inbox Zero comes to the rescue. We can’t avoid the emails, but we can manage them effectively.

Inbox Zero is the practice of maintaining an empty (or close to empty) inbox at all times. Not just achieving the status of all unread emails, but actually having zero messages waiting for you. Maybe it seems more likely that the Starbucks barista will pronounce your name correctly than you would ever get through all of your emails, but I promise it can happen. (Not the barista, your inbox.)

Before we dive into how to make this a possibility, I’ll ask you not to panic. Getting through all of your emails does not mean you’re deleting everything you’ve ever received. It doesn’t mean that you’ll lose all record of everything you’ve ever done. You also don’t need to create an intricate web of categories and folders and flags and pain. Who has time for that? It just means that you’re acting on emails, moving them out of the way, and getting on with the work you need to do.

So how do you get started? What does effectively managing email even look like? I’ll share some of my own favorite practices; take or leave what speaks to you.

Dealing with Messages:

Someone once told me that an inbox full of emails is just an inbox full of delayed decisions. You can do four things to every email you receive: Do, Defer, Delegate, and Delete.

Do: If you receive an email that has an easy action item (e.g., it would take less than two minutes to complete), then just do it. Once you’ve done it, move it out of your inbox, into a reference folder or your trash. Personally, I have two “reference” folders for emails that I know I’ll need later on but don’t need to act on anymore. One is for short-term keepsakes (“Temp”) and the other is a permanent archive (“Keep”). I’ve set up my temporary folder to automatically delete messages after 6 months unless I pull them out into my permanent archive. I know brave souls who only have one reference folder and don’t deal with the secondary “temporary” folder, but I have separation anxiety and need the safety net before deleting.

Defer: If the email waiting for you would take more than two minutes to act on, or just includes reading material, defer it for later. Set up time on your calendar to act on delegated email tasks and another time to go through emails you just need to read. You can create a folder called “Read” or “Defer” and stick messages in there until you’re ready. In this case, procrastination is more than acceptable. Immediately acting on every email received would derail your day—set aside intentional time to work on these items.

Delegate: Sometimes you receive emails that fall under someone else’s jurisdiction. Somewhat like the “Do” action, go ahead and pass the message along to the appropriate party, then move it out of the way, either to a reference folder or trash. I get having trust issues, but try to avoid feeling like you need to check up on the person to whom you forwarded the message. You’ve passed the memo along, your work is complete.

Delete: I’m sure we’re all very familiar with the email that has no purpose whatsoever. Do you really need the one-word “Thanks”? Do you need that “Calendar Invite Accepted”? I bet not. Just delete it. Please. (Okay, full disclosure: sometimes I still put the “Thanks” emails in my Temporary Reference folder. You never know.)

If you do one of these four actions for every email, you won’t need more than a couple of sub-folders (Reference and Defer/Read) under your inbox. Your reference folder is a catch-all for anything you need to tuck away. To find something later, just search for keywords or the sender’s name. You really don’t need 120 sub-folders.

When To Check Messages:

When you get to the office in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? After making coffee, I used to check email immediately. I didn’t even think about it, it just happened with muscle memory. But here’s the thing, if you start your day by checking email, you’re starting your day with someone else’s agenda in mind. Take charge! Sit down at your desk in the morning and refrain from checking email first. Start by doing one of your own to-do items.

Then, throughout the rest of the day, set aside intentional times to check email, maybe once every couple of hours. Turn off your email notifications so that they don’t distract you from your work in between email checks. If you tend to get distracted easily, turning off email notification banners and sounds will change your life for the better (personal experience).

What To Do with a Million Emails Now:

I have a running joke with friends that I’m psychic, so let me guess what you’re thinking: “I have 25,000 emails in my inbox right now. Thanks for your idealism, but doing and delegating and turning off notifications isn’t going to help me.” You’re right, sort of.

It’s unrealistic to assume that you’re going to get through years’ worth of emails in a week, so I invite you to start small. When I began my journey of email freedom, I took every email that was more than one month old and stuck them in a folder called “DeleteOn[DATE]” and set that date for six months later. I decided that if I didn’t refer to that email within six months, I wouldn’t need it. You can set this time for however long you feel is right, but I would recommend no longer than 12 or 18 months.

Then, I took every email from the past month and did one of those four actions above to organize and sift through them. Learning about a couple of missed deadlines was terrifying, but I still have a job. After a tedious afternoon, I had something amazing: a blank slate. I had Inbox Zero. It happened.

Now, I generally have about three to five emails begging for my attention at any given time, which is a manageable amount for me. I can speak from real life experience that with an inbox under control, it’s easier to focus on work throughout the day and Sunday evenings are actually relaxing. I challenge you to see what your days would be like with Inbox Zero.

Photo credit: hyperdashery badges

Jacqueline Myers
Jacqueline serves as Apparo's Program Manager, overseeing nonprofit programs including IT Coaching, Nonprofit Insights, the Mission Possible Award, and training groups. Apparo is a Charlotte-based nonprofit whose mission is to empower local nonprofits through technology that enhances their missions.