November 10, 2014

Some Thoughts on Inbox Zero

Most people hate email.

I don’t—I actually like email, and I suspect the reason is that I have a zero-tolerance policy for bullshit in my inbox, which means receiving email is never a stressful or overwhelming occurrence in my day.

Inbox zero itself is a simple philosophy to understand, but can be a daunting one to put into practise. Instead of treating your inbox as your email repository, you treat it as a triage point from where emails find their true home. Instead of an inbox containing every email you’ve ever received, it contains only emails that you haven’t processed yet.

Anything you need to keep gets sent to the archive when you’re done reading it or responding to it. Email you don’t want to keep gets trashed. Spam goes to the spam folder.

It’s simple, immediate, and practical.

Your inbox becomes a landing pad that only ever contains emails that still require your attention—as soon as they’re done, they leave the inbox. No clutter.

The difficulty is in taking the first step: archiving the thousands of emails in your inbox to get to inbox zero for the first time.

The Great Purge

Question: if you have more than 500 unread emails in your inbox, do you expect to actually read those emails at any point in time? Be honest—not of course…some day!” Some day” is brain code for no.

You could leave them there, staring at you, reminding you of your email overload with ever more ridiculous numbers of unread, important, and other futile denotations. But is that helping you get through your emails faster? Is it reducing the clutter in your digital ecosystem? Is it turning email into a less stressful part of your life?

If you’re like me, the answer to those questions is no. To be fair, I never had unread emails in my inbox; I was always diligent about marking things as read, so for me the clutter was the simple fact that my inbox was always filled with everything I’d ever received. Thousands upon thousands of emails no longer relevant to my day.

Inbox zero was a concept I hadn’t even heard of until Mailbox appeared on the scene. It never occurred to me that there was any other way to deal with email than the default method I had subconsciously adopted when I got my first email address. In fact, I didn’t even know that there was a name for the workflow until a while after I was already using Mailbox.

The reason Mailbox worked for me is that it was designed for this workflow. Part of its DNA is helping you reach inbox zero that first crucial time, because it knows that the first hurdle is the most difficult.

The Great Purge

The easiest way to get started is cold turkey: mark all that old stuff as read and sweep everything short of your most recent 5-10 emails that need answering into your archive. Really. Take a deep breath and move them all. It’s scary at first, but unbelievably liberating once you do it.

Freaking out? It’s okay—move them back. They’re all still there, see? Off to the archive once more…nothing is lost, search still works, your labels still apply. You can do this a few times until you get bored, or until your inbox starts looking somehow…wrong with all those emails in it.

Are you feeling it? Congratulations, your inbox is now an inbox, not a museum!

Zero Tolerance

Once you’ve taken that first step, a funny thing happens: you become more ruthless about what should be allowed to reach your inbox. The reason is that when your inbox is empty, it allows you to be more attentive and notice exactly what kind of emails flood in, which isn’t as easy if your email is already full of stuff.

When I first adopted inbox zero, the subsequent days were spent radically culling the number of emails reaching my inbox. Here are some examples of the kinds of email I’ve blocked:

  • Social network notifications
  • Newsletters from publications I like
  • Sales catalogues

These three categories alone accounted for hundreds of useless emails in any given month. Do you have an app? Great! Notify me there—get out of my inbox. Am I reading your articles in Feedly or Flipboard? Terrific. Stay out of my inbox.

Nowadays, I get less than 20 emails per day across all my accounts. Sometimes less than 10. And it’s never stressful because they’re always emails I actually want to be receiving—client conversations, inquiries, bills (to be shuttled into Evernote), ticket/shipment confirmations, etc.

Questions

One of the main sticking points for people considering inbox zero as a workflow is the impression that their archived emails become more difficult to access.

Losing Emails

This is a very common misconception that stems more from being used to seeing everything at once than anything else. When you need to find an old email, you are very unlikely to go scrolling through thousands of emails in your inbox to find it—you’d use your mail client’s search to surface it instantly.

The process remains entirely unchanged whether your emails are in your inbox or in the archive—the difference is that when they’re archived, those thousands of old emails aren’t in your face when you don’t need them, sitting amongst the emails you actually have to do something about.

Same accessibility, less clutter.

Labels

If you’re a fan of Gmail’s labels, their functionality is also unaffected—your rules can still label things as they come in, and you can still use those labels to quickly look at a list of all relevant emails.

They just don’t all sit piled up in your inbox now.

Conversations

One final concern that I’ve heard voiced has to do with conversations; specifically, what happens to them once archived. When you archive a conversation, that conversation isn’t permanently removed from your inbox.

As soon as someone replies, the whole thread is right back in your inbox again.

If you don’t have anything further to contribute or draw from the conversation once you’ve answered, this allows you to send your response and then archive the thread while you wait for others to answer.

As soon as it requires your attention again, it’ll be back.

Workflow

There are people out there—I’ve seen them, they’re real!—who keep everything in their inbox and are content to do so. This article isn’t written for them, because my goal is not to change a system that’s working.

But when it comes to something as ubiquitous as email, it’s easy to lose sight of how much stress it can bring when left unattended.


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