Why Inbox Zero Isn’t About Having Zero Emails

It’s easy to write Inbox Zero off as a gimmick.

I did for years, seeing the cries of “Inbox Zero” from people who had successfully whittled their emails down to nothingness as the strangest of achievements to be proud of.

After all, having no emails in your inbox doesn’t mean you have no work to do. It just means that you’ve moved things around in a way that gives your brain a satisfying rush of knowing something is off your too do list. Out of sight, out of mind.

But then what happens? With every email squirrelled away you’ve no idea what you’re waiting on, what you need to do next or where projects are, without traipsing through all of your email folders.

I’ve used Inbox Zero for years now and have never once tried to make my inbox have no emails in it. Yet I’m still a huge convert of Inbox Zero and recommend it to everyone I can because of one simple element.

The “Waiting On folder”

For those unfamiliar with Inbox Zero it’s a concept created by Merlin Mann to improve productivity. The idea is that you only check emails at set times during the day – not as a constant flood – and that you complete one of five actions for every email – “delete, delegate, respond, defer and do.”.

You can read more about it here or watch this video I made but the most important bit is:

“the zero is not a reference to the number of messages in an inbox; it is the amount of time an employee’s brain is in his inbox.”

So when people jump up and down excitedly about having zero emails in their inbox they’re actually missing the point. You can have twenty emails in there and still be doing things right.

The important thing is that you know exactly the action required for every email in there. You can then close the application and know everything is in hand. That’s why I set up two folders in my Inbox:

“Waiting on someone” and “To do later”.

Two folders that change everything

“To do later” is for emails that can wait and “waiting on someone” is for emails where someone else needs to reply to me and I don’t want to forget I’ve got something with them. Everything else, aka the 20 emails in my inbox, are things I need to do now.

That structure changed my working life more than having a blank email inbox ever could.

Thanks to the “waiting on someone” folder I’m like a dog with a bone when it comes to following up on tasks now. Whenever I need to chase someone I check that folder and go barking.

You should try it too. You’ll never forget about a task again and will ensure critical tasks get completed.

And whilst it’s no substitute for project management tools like BaseCamp it’s not always worth setting up an entire project for every single email conversation. Sometimes you just need a quick response and that’s where the folder comes in so handy.

I couldn’t care less about shouting “Inbox Zero” on social media but being able to say “Waiting On No-one” is a far more aspirational goal.

Give it a go and you’ll never have a project fall through the cracks of email communication again.

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