Managing Email: Inbox Zero

Managing email can be a time consuming and soul destroying task, particularly if you receive a lot of it every day. I’ve never been great at this and have wanted to improve it for ages.

So I’ve been reading some of Merlin Mann’s articles on Inbox Zero which have helped enormously. I also watched this entertaining video of Merlin sharing his tips at a Google tech talk.

There’s a lot of information here, but the main thing I learned was the importance of quickly determining the action required for an email, and doing that action straightaway. Merlin has a five point checklist to help you: Delete, Delegate, Respond, Defer, Do.

Since I’ve had them in mind, my email management has improved drastically. I now operate much more efficiently:

  • Delete: I delete much more than I used to, even things that I once used to archive I’ve now learned are mostly useless and if I know I’ll never act on them, they go straight in the bin. Within “Delete” Merlin also notes that this applies to archiving too — if the email doesn’t require a response, but you might later need the information in it, then archive it immediately. The point is to get out of the inbox.
  • Delegate: I don’t need to delegate anything because I work for myself, so this one’s easy!
  • Respond: I respond immediately if the response is trivial. If I need more information to reply (perhaps I need to do some research), then I will…
  • Defer: Flag the mail so that I can come back to it at a later date
  • Do: If the action required of the email is something I can do immediately, then I do it. Simple.

These 5 things really do help — though they are only going to work if you also create and maintain a schedule for checking your email. I haven’t yet determined what’s best for me, but I’m thinking it won’t be more than three times a day: once in the morning, once at lunchtime and once late afternoon.

It also helps that I recently switched to using Gmail instead of Outlook. Gmail has a much better way of organising mail using labels rather than folders and psychologically this helps too. As I’m no longer seeing a huge list of folders, I’m less threatened by my inbox, and by using the five rules above I can pretty much get my inbox to zero everytime.

Thanks to Merlin for his tips, this has helped me a lot.

4 thoughts on “Managing Email: Inbox Zero

  1. Tim Ferris’ Four Hour Workweek has some similar tips regarding email. He suggests that you add an autoresponse that lets people know when you’ll next be checking your email.

    I use rescuetime to log exactly where I spend my time. It really helps if you know how much time you’ve spent on work vs wasting time.

    In gmail I’ve got tags for every client and every project, as well as every mailing list I’m on and various other things. I put the most important ones at the top of the list by prefixing them with an underscore and group them together with a single character: p for project, c for client etc.

    I’m trying to shift some of my online reading time into listening to podcasts instead because I can listen to them in the otherwise ‘dead’ time when I’m not working.

    I’m pretty good at organising work related tasks with an issue tracker, but I don’t have such good habits with twitter, reddit, rss feeds and all other distractions the web brings us every day.

  2. Just what i was looking for, I really need to find a solution for my inbox, I currently have more than 5000 mails in my inbox.

    I think I’ll start flagging my emails more often and delete those emails that dont need response, or have no real interest/importance.

  3. Hi kasper. Yep, it’s really just a question of getting a routine with it. Since I became more disciplined at this stuff, I’ve found email is far less of a chore than it used to be, and switching to Gmail has helped a lot too, simply by virtue of the fact I no longer see a huge list of folders sitting off my inbox! :-)