What is Inbox Zero?

What is Inbox Zero

If you’re an entrepreneur or involved in the world of tech, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the “Inbox Zero” philosophy. For those who may be seeing this term for the first time, your initial thought might be that the idea is to get your inbox to the magic number of zero.

While that isn’t a terrible idea, it actually isn’t the main goal or philosophy behind the term. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to achieve because the moment you reach it, here comes another email. So you may be asking yourself, “what is inbox zero?”

1. What is Inbox Zero, and What Did It Mean Originally?

Inbox Zero was created in 2004 by Merlin Mann as a way of taking control over his email inbox. The original intent was that Inbox Zero would create an environment where the amount of attention that is dedicated to email (or thinking about email) gets as close to zero as possible.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have unread emails that you’ll get to soon, or that you shouldn’t have any emails at all. It just means that email isn’t bogging down your productivity and controlling your schedule. It means reducing the stress that email can plague us with day in and day out.

2. What Has Inbox Zero Evolved Into?

There’s been several advancements in the field of Inbox Zero. In fact, many others have come up with their own unique tips, tricks, and supplemental approaches for helping achieve this long-sought-after state. And it makes sense when you realize that since 2004 email has exploded, inundating us with more new emails than we’ve ever received in the regular USPS mail. Therefore, it’s even more important to organize email similar to how you would organize your snail mail. 

This evolution of email is also the likely culprit behind why so many believe Inbox Zero is synonymous with a zeroed-out inbox. But in Mann’s own words, this would be incorrect:

“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.”

3. How Can We Master True Inbox Zero?

As was previously stated, there are myriad techniques and approaches to achieving Inbox Zero. Let’s first look at what Merlin Mann’s recommendations are, and then we can take a look at a supplemental technique that has evolved over the years.

First off, according to Mann, we need to stop treating Inbox Zero as a means to an end. We’ll be getting new emails every day, and if our focus is simply getting to this point, we’ll always be playing catch up. We’ll be dedicating far too much time to achieving this goal than actually achieving it. With that in mind, instead of seeing Inbox Zero as the end goal, see it as a process, a journey. 

The idea is to use the concept or the strategies behind achieving Inbox Zero to “touch once” (when possible) on email. The emails that can easily be deemed trash should be deleted immediately. The emails that are reference point only and don’t require a response or further action should be out-of-sight, and organized in a manner that they are discoverable again when you need them. The emails that require an action should be prioritized effectively.

But one size doesn’t fit all. That’s why it’s a good idea to figure out what works for you. Then, repeat that until it becomes a habit and effortless. Doing something once doesn’t stick. But over time you’ll learn how to adapt the various techniques and approaches to fit your personality, turning this philosophical technique into an everyday habit. 

At that point, you’ll be unstoppable on your journey to true Inbox Zero.

4. How to Personalize Inbox Zero to Fit Your Needs

A lot of the tips and techniques you can use to personalize your Inbox Zero journey can be found in my other articles like Forget “Inbox Zero” and Aim for “Inbox Zen”, but here’s a few that can nudge you in the right direction.

I. Use Labels/Categories/Folders in Your Email

One of my favorite organizational tools is the use of labels, categories, and folders. It allows me to immediately group emails together based on email address or topic. With a couple clicks of a button, you can even make your email platform automatically filter these messages into designated folders as they come in!  

*A word of caution: be careful not to filter these emails into an “archival” folder or your systems will break and you won’t feel in control.

By using labels, categories, and folders, you can ensure those subscription emails you enjoy reading on your break or on your commute home won’t distract you from the most important project you’re working on during the workday.

II. Schedule and Limit Time Spent With Your Inbox

There’s no need to constantly refresh your inbox. If you’re waiting for something important, you’ll know when it comes soon enough. Unless the incoming email is so time-sensitive that without responding within a minute you’ll lose an opportunity (very rare), you can focus on what you’re doing now. Then, when a scheduled time occurs, or a lapse in time, then you check your email. You’ll see it, and respond.

But beyond scheduling times to check your email, make sure you set a time limit as well. Use a timer if need be. It’s easy to get lost going down rabbit holes, and by setting a timer you’ll subconsciously remember that you actually don’t have all the time in the world to look at email.  This will help you prioritize, and you’ll be more conscientious about which emails actually require more of your time. During opportunities to check email, set a timer for 15-minutes, and when it beeps, it’s back to your focused work.

III. Know Your End Goal

It’s nice to strive for achieving Inbox Zero, but to what end? 

You know the purpose of email is to communicate, so do you need to continue receiving those emails about weekly recipes? Could that be transferred to a personal email? Are you sure you want to sign up for that free trial of (insert product/service here) and get inundated with sales emails? Maybe think twice before signing up. Or, at the very least, unsubscribe at the earliest opportunity.  

Do you want to be more organized? If so, you’ll want to put more effort into effectively using  your folders and labels, or whatever organizational system ensures that you’ll see, and respond to the important emails at the appropriate time.

By asking yourself “what is my goal with achieving Inbox Zen,” you’ll be able to create a solid game plan so your approach isn’t haphazard. You know how you work better than anyone else because no one else is with you 100% of the time. Do what you need to help yourself, and get closer to Inbox Zero, otherwise known as Inbox Zen.

IV. When All Else Fails, Learn!

Sometimes you need outside help. We may think something looks easy on paper, but when push comes to shove, you may feel a bit overwhelmed when implementing this philosophy.

There are plenty of techniques to achieve Inbox Zero, and it all comes from having a solid approach to email – and time-management. If you’re ready to achieve the realistic goal of Inbox Zero, or better yet, going a step further and achieving “Inbox Zen” and learning how to spend purposeful and intentional time with your inbox so that it serves you the way you need it to, sign up for a free webinar to learn more about the ARTT™ Email Productivity course. I will personally introduce a new way of thinking about email, show you step-by-step how to conquer your inbox, and build a routine that causes less stress and allows you to get more done each day.

See you there!

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