Better Email Management: Is It About “Inbox Zero”?

Jan 16, 2017
Post Masthead

Is achieving “inbox zero” realistic?

According to Radicati, the average businessperson sends and receives a staggering 121 emails a day. Managing those emails is often the most time consuming task that employees and employers alike deal with throughout their work week.

But according to Merlin Mann – who coined the phrase “inbox zero” – learning how to manage your inbox is actually about learning how to reclaim your attention and your life.

“It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox,” he says. “It’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.”

If you find yourself in the position of constantly managing (or not managing) your email inbox and you feel overwhelmed, here’s what you need to know.


Every Email Requires Action

Every email requires action, just not the action you think.

“Email is such a funny thing,” Mann says. “People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble. But it doesn’t take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that’s taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move.”

The problem is that many people believe reading emails is the action they’re suppose to take; if you read it and reply, that’s enough. But every email requires additional action if you want to avoid being crushed to death by all of your “pebbles.”

Mann suggests reframing your relationship with email by asking yourself a few questions every time you open your inbox:

  1. What does this email mean to me and why do I care?\
  2. What action, if any, does this email require of me?\
  3. What’s the best way to deal with this email and the action it contains?

Based on your answers, you should create four folders: Action Required, Awaiting Response, Delegated, and Archived.

Source: Hubspot Source: Hubspot

This will set your priorities when it comes to handling emails and determining which ones are truly important and which can be discarded or handed off to someone else. Once you have things organized, you can focus on ridding yourself of the temptation to access your email every single minute of every single day.

Overcoming Email Addiction

There are plenty of different strategies out there to tame your inbox, but the problem with most methods is that they never take into account the habits, characteristics, and belief systems of email users.

Some people are simply addicted to email, and creating new email folders or filters won’t always help with that.

Mike Vardy from Lifehacker argues that most people’s idea of Inbox Zero is actually wrong.

“The sense of fulfillment one gets from clearing out everything in your inbox is temporary at best, disappointing at worst. Often we find that we’re shooting for Inbox Zero just so that we can say that we’ve got ‘everything done that needed to be done’.

In a way, Inbox Zero is really about taking control over your time and mental energy. If you spend every waking hour worried about clearing out your inbox or checking your email, you’re not really in control.

Tim Ferriss, author of the popular book 4-Hour Workweek, only checks his email once or twice a day. In fact, he sets up autoresponders that notify anyone that emails him of his intentions.

Source: 4-Hour Workweek

Source: 4-Hour Workweek

He applies this strategy to both is personal and business emails. In fact, his business autoresponder gives him the option of checking his email once every 7-10 days.

Depending on your career and the urgency of the emails, that may not be possible for you. However, Ferriss’ mindset about email can still apply.

If you want to be more efficient, don’t check your email all the time. Set a schedule and stick to it.

Set a Schedule for Checking Emails

But if the proverbial pebbles of your inbox are already crushing you, how can you get organized to catch up, especially if you’re only checking email once or twice a day?

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh recommends setting aside scheduled time every day to focus solely on emails. He calls it the “Yesterbox Technique”:

  • Your “to do” list each day is yesterday’s email inbox
  • If it can wait 48 hours without causing harm, then you’re not allowed to respond to any emails that come in today
  • When processing yesterday’s inbox, you must process 10 of yesterday’s emails before you can look at today’s emails
  • For email that takes more than 10 minutes to respond, create a calendar (as if it were a meeting) and find a time to respond
  • Set up recurring appointments to go through yesterday’s inbox every day

Hsieh knows that it takes him about 3 hours to get through his Yesterbox, so he schedules a 3-hour meeting at the beginning of each day.

He also suggests breaking things down into urgent and nonurgent categories and dealing with the essential things first to reduce anxiety and get your head out of “email mode”.

Get Rid of Nonessentials

Studies show that only 1in every 4 work emails is actually important, and only 14% of work emails are “critically important.”

Spam email, personal emails, newsletters, social media notifications, and other essentially “junk” email often clutters our inboxes, preventing us from catching emails that are truly important.

The solution? Delete and unsubscribe from as many emails as possible, and use filters to catch the rest.

If you’re overloaded with subscription emails or newsletters and you don’t want to waste additional time unsubscribing one by one, try a mass-unsubscribe service like Unroll.me.


You can also take another play out of Ferriss’ playbook by becoming an “email ninja” – creating email filters that automatically send emails where they need to go.

“I often get notifications from the many online services I use, from Amazon to WordPress to PayPal and many more. As soon as I notice those types of notifications filling up my inbox, I create a filter […] that will automatically put these into a folder and mark them as read, or trash them, as appropriate. So for my PayPal notifications, I can always go and check on them in my ‘payments’ folder if I like, but they never clutter my inbox.”

Keep in mind that filters will only truly help you if you’re not mentally married to your email inbox.

If you’re still checking email every time you check your phone or open your computer, you’re not doing yourself any favors.

Final Thoughts

Email isn’t going away anytime soon, and you will most likely need a strategy for managing your inbox if you want to stop yourself from being buried.

The most important part of email management will be a mindset shift – dumping the idea that every email is important and that you have to check your email at every possible second.

Once you realize that not everything is essential, create a schedule that allows you to check your email in an organized way, and use tools to help organize your folders when you’re away from your inbox.

The more you can automate the process – like Ferriss does with his autoresponders and filters – the faster you will achieve true Inbox Zero.