What Zeroing Out Your Inbox Can Do for You

Last Updated on October 7, 2021

Inbox Zero. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like; an approach to email management where each email is treated as an entry in a ‘to do’ list, and deleted once you’re finished. There’s a little bit more to it than that, of course, according to Tech Target (which sites Merlin Mann, the fellow who fist pioneered the term):

  • Avoid leaving your email client open
  • Set a schedule for when you check your email – for example, at the top of each hour.
  • Delete or archive as many new messages as possible.
  • Forward what can be best answered by another person
  • Immediately respond to messages that can be answered in two minutes or less
  • Move messages that require more time to a separate “response required” folder
  • Set aside time each day to sift through and answer emails in that folder.

Others have adopted Mann’s theories and added their own techniques, as well. Zoe Fox of Mashable, for example, recommends the following:

  • Take care of emails during your downtime
  • Create labels that serve a purpose
  • Don’t open emails from senders you don’t recognize.
  • Make use of a mail management app
  • Don’t just mark emails as unread – archive them.

And Pubmatic CEO Rajeev Goel has his own tidbits of advice, which he recently shared with Fast Company:

  • Don’t treat emails as work
  • Manage your inbox at the beginning and end of every day.
  • Don’t reply to emails that aren’t urgent – you don’t need to respond immediately all the time.
  • Group emails together based on their topic
  • View emails based on the individual who sent them, and collect them into one place to discuss at your next meeting or in your next conversation.

Alright. That advice is all well and good, but why should anyone put in the effort to follow it? What exactly does keeping your inbox at zero actually gain?

Quite a bit, actually. See, the whole theory of inbox zero is tied to something else – control. Keeping your inbox empty and yourself free of unread notifications makes you feel good. It makes you feel in charge, and in control.

One thing that I think is particularly important about the Inbox Zero approach is that it relegates checking your mail to certain times of day. It shifts email from a distraction into another workplace task. And in so doing, it has the potential to cut a great deal of stress out from your life.

At least, that’s what University of California Irvine Informatics professor Gloria Mark found in a joint study between her organization and the United States Army back in 2012. According to the study, people who worked with email changed screens twice as often as those who went without – 37 times per hour as opposed to 18. What’s more, the people who went without email felt more productive, better focused, and calmer, with “fewer stressful and time-wasting interruptions.”

The emailers, meanwhile, consistently remained in a high alert state.

In other words, Inbox Zero isn’t just about emptying your inbox. Not really. That’s just part of the equation.

What it’s really about is controlling your email, rather than letting it control you – Mark herself has stated as much.

“Mark has noticed that, for some people, email is an extension of autonomy – it’s about having control,” writes The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker. “One subject, she said, told her, “I let the sound of the bell and the popups rule my life.” Compulsively checking email or compulsively clearing out queues of unread emails, then, can be a form of regaining some of that control. “So I might refine your theory to say that those who feel compelled to check email may be more susceptible to feeling a loss of control [and] in missing out on information,” Mark said.”

In the same way that some people flourish and thrive when surrounded by clutter, there are people who need Inbox Zero, and people who don’t. The real key, then, isn’t in zeroing out your messages and notifications. It’s in deciding if you even need to do so.

It’s in finding what makes you most productive – no matter what self-help gurus and productivity masters have to say on the matter.

Less stress and more time actually spent completing tasks? Looks like something worth looking into right?