How to manage your emails with Inbox Zero

If there’s one problem that affects our lives on a daily basis, a problem that steals our time, can cause us an unlimited amount of stress and most certainly damages our productivity – it’s managing our emails. So, is it really possible to de-clutter our inbox?

Inbox Zero
Inbox Zero

Electronic mail can delight us, it can help us to stay in touch with friends, family and work colleagues, it can even sometimes make us laugh, but all too often it is the cause of much stress and anxiety too.

It’s not so much the content of the message that is at fault, although too many angry emails from customers or the boss can surely do that, no, it’s the sheer number of never ending emails that land in our inbox everyday that people say causes them the most stress. The question is: How can you attend to all your emails and still have enough time in the day to be productive?

‘There’s no ‘day off’ as far as emails are concerned.’

Many of my clients, and friends, complain constantly about the number of emails they receive each day. Many of them would admit that nearly half of their working day (and free time in the evening) is spent getting on top of their emails, and they believe that it’s getting worse year on year. There’s no ‘day off’ as far as emails are concerned.

You’re probably like me and don’t have enough time in the day to open and read and/or reply to every email that lands in your inbox. In fact, don’t you just love it when you can quickly delete several emails in one fell swoop of the mouse? A glimpse of the sender’s name, or preview of the message, being enough to assure you ‘that this is only spam’ and that you can expunge it from your inbox without any regard or regret.

But what’s really going on here? Why do we feel so happy about deleting emails? Surely, deleting an email that has been, perhaps painstakingly, composed for you to read, and then before having been read discarded, is not only foolish but also bad manners. Furthermore, how do you know for sure that the message didn’t contain something that you would have found interesting or would have benefited from?

For me, it’s better to get rid of as many emails as possible at first glance, as I know that the remaining emails, the ones that cannot so easily be dismissed, will have to be dealt with one way or the other and this will take time and effort on my part.

I’ll certainly have a number of decisions to make such as:

  • Will I read it? (If, the answer is ‘yes’ take 1-2 minutes off the time available to me in my day);
  • Will I save it to read later? (If, ‘yes’, great – it will only take seconds to drag it into a folder, however, I’ll fret about not having read it for two reasons: 1) it might contain something really important that would benefit me, that I should know about now because it is time sensitive; 2) I know from past experience that if I store the message in one of my highly organised folders it possibly won’t see the light of day ever again (therefore, I’ll miss something really important that I would have benefited from knowing about);
  • Will I send a reply? (That’s probably going to be 3-5 minutes, well more probably as I have a thing about proofreading my emails and end up checking and rechecking them several times before sending them);
  • Will I hit the ‘Click here’ button and be transported to their website? At which point I am well and truly doomed. I’m looking at about 5-30 minutes depending upon the site, and if their marketing is really good, I’ll end up spending money too.

I used to dread opening my email, especially if I’d been away from my desk for a few days, and would always try to resist opening my email until I had spent some time getting up to speed with what I’d missed while I was away. Only after I felt more relaxed and up to speed with things would I open my email. Now I was in a more relaxed state to sift through the hundreds of messages without stressing that I should be somewhere else or doing some other task.

Manage emails successfully
Manage emails successfully

However, over the years I’ve learned one or two tricks on how to process emails more productively. They’re probably just common sense things to do really, but work well for me nonetheless:

A few tricks on how to process emails more productively

  • While I’m waiting in a queue, waiting to go into a meeting, or even waiting for the kettle to boil, I’ll get my iphone out and will spend a few minutes deleting as many emails as I can as fast as possible – it’s very satisfying to see them whiz off into the little trash can.
  • I regularly clear out my archives/folders so that I don’t have more than 20 emails in each one at any time, and if they’ve been in there for more than 3 months then it’s unlikely that I’m going to read them, so out they go.
  • I’ve also recently unsubscribed to just about everything – stores, journals and information websites, (though I’ve kept my subscription to a few of my favourite blogs) which means I now get a lot less emails than I used to.
 Inbox Zero

Recently a good friend of mine pointed me in the direction of an action-based approach to email management developed by productivity expert Merlin Mann called Inbox Zero. He has created a simple system that encourages you to form ‘the processing habit’ to better manage your emails.

According to Mann, the ‘zero’ is not a reference to the number of messages in your inbox but ‘the amount of your brain that’s in your inbox’. In other words, ineffective email management negatively affects mental functioning and productivity so your inbox needs to be kept quite low, or ideally at zero. Think about the wonderful feeling that you get when you have cleared out your inbox (or if this has never happened to you, imagine how it would feel to have no emails waiting for you. What could you do with all that free time?).

Mann talks about deleting messages that have been in the inbox for more than 21 days, and moving the rest to a folder called DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). Having these emails in a DMZ folder rather than your inbox makes them seem more manageable as you are able to deal with them a few at a time (say in bursts of 20 minutes each day). The messages are then ready to undergo 5 possible actions – delete, delegate, respond, defer and do.

Here are a few more tips from Mann that I especially liked and last week began to implement with some success:


  • Process emails only once every 1-2 hours and don’t leave the email client open.
  • Respond to any messages that can be answered in 2 minutes or less.
  • Deal with messages in folders in short burst throughout the day.
  • Keep messages and responses as brief as possible.


For more information, inspiration, and if you have time to give yourself a little break, – here’s Merlin Mann as he introduces the Inbox Zero approach in a Google Tech Talk. You can also watch this while multitasking, e.g. while checking your emails!

Overloaded inboxes are something that most of us have to deal with nowadays; I don’t think there’s any way of getting away from them. How do you manage your emails? Do you have an elaborate system for storing and attending to them that works? Please share your ideas by leaving a comment below. 

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