Open question: What's the point of inbox zero?

An attempt at understanding the deeper meaning of an empty inbox.

I have 10,021 unread messages in my inbox. Ignored newsletters and various bits of nearly useless information make up most of that unread count (I think). That’s why 10k+ unaddressed messages don’t concern me.

But is my ease misplaced? There seems to be an awful lot of people — or a few vocal people, I can’t tell which — that pursue “inbox zero” with evangelistic zeal.

To be clear, I don’t fault anyone who pursues the tidiness of an empty inbox. If that’s what you want to do, so be it. Rather, I just don’t understand the motivations and intentions behind inbox zero (nor do I understand why so many feel it necessary to publicize their inbox successes and failures through Twitter … but that’s another matter).

So, because I find the whole “inbox zero” thing curious, I figured I’d toss out a few open questions:

  • Do you try to get your inbox down to zero unread messages? If so, why?
  • Is inbox zero something you try to achieve every day? Every month? Every quarter?
  • What does inbox zero represent to you? Does it have deeper meaning?
  • Does inbox zero lead to better overall organization?

Please share your thoughts in the comments area.

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  • Jim S

    I usually try to get down to “inbox 10″ every other week or so. I don’t care about zero, but I care that the number is small enough that I can see it on one screen and know what is in there. Inevitably when I go to the trouble of doing that I find a couple of really important things that I meant to respond to and that had gotten lost in the shuffle.

    There may be more to it than that though. When I read that you had over 10k messages in your inbox it caused what I can only describe as an anxious feeling in my gut. Followed by a thankful realization that it isn’t my problem. :)

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/alexh Alex Howard

    I’ve tried pursuing “inbox zero” over the years. n many ways, that “unread” number in email feels much like the “unread feeds” number in my RSS reader. On that count, I think there’s some cognitive benefit – not seeing “914 Unread” in bold face upon log in subtracts some inherent dismay – but it’s not something I feel the need to achieve each day.

    I tend to do “email triage” throughout the day, scanning to see what’s new, whether there are time sensitive questions, breaking news or replies to inquiries, and, if there’s time, classifying the rest to follow up or delete.

    On thing has changed, recently: with the addition of Priority Inbox, however, the game has changed for me, at least on gmail. After some training, now those accounts *always* have “inbox zero,” and I don’t lose key messages from friends, family and others amidst the daily digital detritus. And that does, in fact, feel pretty good.

  • Mac Slocum

    In time we may look back on Priority Inbox as one of Google’s finest innovations. I find it incredibly useful.

    The downside — if “unread” counts are inherently bad — is that the total number of unaddressed messages in my inbox continues to rise.

    But again, I think I’m good with that.

  • MrAtoz

    At home, I use my inbox as a to-do list. When e-mails come in, they are deleted (if junk), moved to an archive folder (if no further action needed), or, if they require some kind of followup or monitoring, they get left in inbox. When I look at my inbox, I see stuff that still needs some kind of attention: the itinerary for my upcoming trip, confirmation of orders I made online that haven’t been received yet, that inquiry from a guy in Italy that I still haven’t gotten around to responding to.

    At work, we use Outlook, and I use the flagging feature to do the same thing. Everything gets filed to the archives, but things that require followup get a flag. There’s the nice “Search Folders” feature in Outlook that shows you just flagged messages — instant to-do list!

    To me, visibility of open items is the critical piece for being productive and effective. I like lightweight organizational approaches like this that can easily become habitual.

  • http://www.weyant.com Peter Weyant

    Efficiency and effectiveness. Inbox zero everyday, and real time if possible. It is the same as the touch once old school paper rule – you should only have to touch most of what comes across the desk once, act on it or toss it. I keep everything in Gmail now, and the only thing left is a few priority messages used as follow-up reminders. That is out of about 500 messages inbound per day. Any few minutes downtime and I use my smartphone to blow away what the spam filter has not, and then save only a subset for review and toss/action on the computer interface. Interestingly, my wife is the exact opposite – must have 5,000 emails in her personal inbox alone. Hate to be her work IT admin LOL. Opposites do attract.

    Also looking at the 3 sentence reply to email movement, http://three.sentenc.es/.

  • Mac Slocum

    @MrAtoz: Your post made me realize “inbox” is, for me, the equivalent to “calendar.”

    I don’t get twitchy about email, but flop sweat pours anytime my calendar malfunctions.

  • http://www.ourairports.com/ David Megginson

    I don’t follow any particular fad, but I do try to keep my inboxes empty — if I leave a read message in an inbox, it’s because the message is critical and I *want* to be annoyed by it so that I don’t forget (e.g. bill due today, meeting reminder, etc.).

    With most messages, though, I’m like a triage nurse in the ER — when a new message arrives, I take a quick look it (or sometimes just the subject line) and then decide whether to deal with it immediately, or move it to a TODO list for the appropriate project/customer (e.g. if it’s just a doc or link I can read later, or just something I’ve been CC’d on).

    A few GMail rules ensure that mailing list postings automatically skip my inbox and go to a GMail label named “mailing-lists”, which I can read in my free time (if ever).

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/alexh Alex Howard

    Couple more points from readers:

    1) Patrick Laforge, an editor at the New York Times, says that “The point is to touch no message, paper, action more than once or spend time searching again and again. Actual empty box? Nah.”

    2) Chris Penn, a VP at Blue Sky Factory, replied with a few ideas on achieving inbox zero, along with why he believes in it: “I do. It’s vital for avoiding using your inbox as a to do list. Here’s how I do it.”

  • http://kristennicole.com Kristen Nicole

    I used to attempt a “zero” inbox but Gmail in particular made it difficult to even find all the unread messages, once I’d amassed a few thousand.

    I’ve learned to use filters, folders and the Priority Inbox, among other things, to organize better. I care far more about searchable access to my archives than having 0 unread messages.

    I also removed the number of unread messages from my inbox interface, so it’s never a looming challenge to eradicate all together.

  • Dwayne

    The notion of a zero inbox either began or picked up a lot of steam from David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” book, often referred to GTD. 43folders.com started based on this system.

    I’ve had a zero inbox several times in the last few years, but I continually fall down. It’s difficult to keep on top of all of the emails. I can say that those few times when it was down to zero I felt as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. That, I believe, is ultimately what the concept is for – the psychological stress, however minor, of all those nagging things that may potentially require action sitting in your inbox can build up.

  • http://www.ericfishor.com Eric Fisher

    Well ideally I would like to achieve inbox zero on both my personal and business email accounts, but I tend to always have like 3 – 4 “pending” emails.

    Essentially my inbox is nothing more to me then a “to do” list. Each time I check my email the only things that remain from the previous time I checked it were items that I am keeping there as a reminder that said item needs addressing. (IE a bill would remain in my inbox until paid.) the rest is either filed away if I decide it’s worth keeping, or delete/spam’d. I get a great deal of email, but with a smart phone when you’re stuck waiting on an elivator or otherwise delayed you can hammer out a few emails which makes it far less annoying.

  • https://secure.grepular.com/ Mike

    Privacy. Data protection. Why store data on the Internet that you don’t need to?

  • http://robjensen.info Rob Jensen

    I get down to inbox zero every time I check email. Inbox Zero is different from having items in your deferred folder. I have a few items there but I’m well aware of them and they have a date I will act on them.

    Inbox zero doesn’t mean you read every email but you must act on it. Newsletters are either scanned and deleted or immediately deleted etc.

    Once you get into the habit of inbox zero it’s not that hard to keep up on. The big issue now is making sure my deferred items syncs with my overall to do “system”.

  • Jordan Peacock

    I aim for inbox

    My inbox becomes stuff that’s actionable or requires a response that’s too complex to dump elsewhere.

  • Aaron

    “Unread” can be a functionally useful state any arbitrary number of purposes.

    Inbound email defaults to this state.

    Leaving email that one never intends to read in “unread” state destroys many of its functional uses.

  • Aaron

    *for any arbitrary number of purposes.

  • http://modite.com Rebecca Thorman

    I clear my inbox to zero at least once a day. I unsubscribe from those pesky newsletters that don’t mean anything to me and am ruthless about protecting my inbox because protecting my time is a priority for me.

    Really though, it’s just different work styles.

  • Sarah Fowler

    I’m kind of anal, so organization in everything is important to me.

    At least twice a day, or as I read them, I move emails to appropriate folders. Only actionable items stay in my inbox. Those get filed once they’re addressed/accomplished, and the goal is inbox zero by the end of every work week, if not every day.

    It’s valuable to me for my peace of mind; I can’t relax unless than darn box is empty! Just thinking about 10,000+ emails in one big, unorganized “pile” almost makes me itch! I’m just more productive when my mind is clear of clutter (virtual and otherwise), but I appreciate that not everyone is bothered by it.

  • Sanji Fernando

    Same here – I get to inbox zero everyday – for me the benefit is purely mental/piece of mind. If I can leave work with an empty inbox, I’m freed up to focus on home, kids, life, etc.

    I’m a big believer in the GTD 2 min rule so if I can’t address what’s in an email, I move it to Things. This may seem like moving simply between inboxes, but by processing everything, I’m not thinking about what to do next – just like David Allen advocates

  • Doug Cuthbertson

    I found that a lot of unread messages created clutter. It was harder to find what was important, and that created stress.

    I recently (in the last few weeks) started to keep the number of messages (read or unread) down to just a few. When I check it (only two or three times a day) it’s easy to see what’s new. I can delete the junk, respond to what needs to be taken care of right away, and note what needs to be done later.

  • http://www.splatshop.co.uk Tim

    I use my inbox as a todo list, everything that is not todo gets archived. Most spam gets stopped by Gmail, and I unsubscribe from almost everything else.

    Easy to see what new stuff there is to action on, and gives me quick access to reply to emails that still need working doing, and a nice quick reminder. The inbox usually has between 20-30 emails in it, everything else is archived. Even email myself to add stuff to the ‘todo’ list.

  • http://www.pushtheotherbutton.com Colombo

    I go for “Inbox 0″ for a couple of reasons. First off, it keeps me vigilant about controlling spam. If I click on every email, I can do what’s appropriate instead of ignoring it.

    Also, I will mark certain emails as unread if I need to hold off on replying to them. I know you can flag them or move them to another folder, but this is just another method that to me, actually increases the urgency of the action needed, because I want to get back to “Inbox 0″ as soon as possible.

  • http://twitter.com/grimblazer Steven Ramirez

    Sure I do because a full inbox represents things undone and gives me tsuris. I realize my inbox won’t remain empty forever but for a brief shining moment when I get it down to 0, pure bliss.

  • http://blog.marcoscrispino.com Marcos Crispino

    I use my Inbox the same way as MrAtoz, if something is left there, it’s because it needs some kind of action or at least attention.

    So, why have 10.201 unread messages? What do you need them for? Why not send them all to the trash and start over?

  • Mac Slocum

    @Marcos: That’s a very good question! Every couple years I do a big purge. The last one cut my unread count from 50k to 10k … perhaps it’s time for another.

  • http://www.lizandnategordon.com Nathan Gordon

    The thought of 10k unread messages is terrifying. That is 10k opportunities for something to get lost. I know that most people believe that if it is important, they will send it again, but I prefer to make sure that I’m at least aware that they sent something to me.

    Everything gets put into an appropriate folder based on client, and things that I need to act upon get flagged in outlook. My inbox becomes the immediate needs, and flagged is for things that I need to do, but not right now. I’m a big fan of spending less than 30 seconds on any given email on average, and mass marking as read things that I know I don’t need to care about. Scan the from, to, and subject, mark as read. If I can’t spend the time to mark it as read, then why is it not spam that should be filtered before it hits my inbox?

  • http://Http://marcovaltas.com Marco Valtas

    Probably someone already mentioned. But I go for inbox zeroas a way to know how much email I have to read. In gmail things like mailing list are marked to skip inbox and conversations that I’m not interest are muted.

  • http://www.paulhammond.org/ Paul Hammond

    Think about it this way: when you collect your snail mail from the mailbox in front of your house, do you put the magazines and bills and letters you don’t want to deal with right now back in the mailbox? Or do you put them somewhere else in your house?

    Inbox zero is about a lot more than an empty inbox (and it’s worth reading everything Merlin Mann wrote about it) – but one key principle is separating “Stuff I haven’t even looked at yet” from “Things I need to do”. Keeping both in one place makes it much harder to triage your email, and makes it much easier to get distracted by the very latest email to come in when you should be replying to a much more important email from three days ago.

    I try to hit an empty inbox at least once each week to make sure I didn’t miss anything important, but I don’t always succeed.

  • http://www.ugal.com Jean Moniatte

    @Paul Hammond. Exactly, perfect analogy. Personally using GMail labels to keep track of what needs to be worked on. Works like a charm. Inbox zero every night here.

  • http://mazzaroth.ca Mazzaroth

    Inbox zero? Not for me (as of now): mazzaroth.ca/inboxicon.png.

  • Mac Slocum

    @Mazzaroth: Wow. How many years’ worth of messages?

  • http://mazzaroth.ca Mazzaroth

    @MarcSlocum: 4 or five. I just read relevant messages and forward actionable or important references to my GTD system. I consider the rest as a database.

    I prefer to have my GTD inbox to zero. :-)

  • http://www.twitter.com/tsbandito Andrew

    I strive for not only email zero, but twitter, IM, BBM, Voice Mail, and SMS zero. Not only to have zero waiting, but to have processed each message in some way. I do this as soon as reasonably possible.

    I do have a mailbox for “bookmarking” things to do later, and I clear that out mostly at the end of each day (though some items may stay there to process later, they have been read).

    Separate mailbox for potential spam sources (orders), and I delete myself from those lists and newsletters that get to be too much. I also delete Facebook friends that just send too much chatter.

    There is no deeper meaning for me, except a method to survive all the messages, and reduce as many as possible “junk” sources.

    Andrew

  • Jon

    For me, inbox zero is futile – right now I’m about about inbox 14,000. I think it’s a control thing – people like to feel like they are on top of things and can start the day anew.

    I used to think this way about Twitter – I wanted to make sure I read every tweet so that I wouldn’t miss out on anything. But as the number of people I follow has increased over time, I’ve realized that reading everything is impossible and have become more comfortable with not being in complete control and awareness of all information.

    I think that as information volume increases more and more, we are going to have to be okay with not being able to process everything – those that must get to “zero” every day are going to feel even more overwhelmed or will have to opt out of a lot to acheive that goal.

  • http://johnnevill.net JNevill

    Thank you for stating this. I’ve always found the arguments for inbox 0 to be bad, or at best, subjective and personal, like “It gives me piece of mind”.

    My inbox has 2239 unread pieces of mail in it. If I need to find a particular mail, I search it. Gmail brings back my searched mail in seconds. If it’s an actionable item, I tag it with a big red “TODO” tag. Once completed, the tag comes off and the email is left in the inbox.

    The worst part of inbox 0 is sending emails to the trash. Gmail gives me 7.5 gb worth of storage, and I will not prune a single message from my inbox until I hit it. Why? Losing that history from my search is unimaginable, and plus, it takes time to delete them.

    For now, it’s Inbox 10000 for me.

  • Carles Farré

    “Inbox 0″ is the Nirvana for me. I try to reach it by the end of the day. However, there is a trick: I use the “Multiple Inboxes” GMail Labs extension (see http://gigaom.com/collaboration/increase-productivity-with-gmail-multiple-inboxes/ for instance)

  • http://www.foursides.ca James M

    Having a number of unread messages in your email or RSS feeds seems to stress people out. It’s like having a stack of unread books or skipping a workout and beating yourself up over it. For some reason, we all want to consume as much as possible and do as much as possible, too. If we don’t, we have a guilty conscious weighing over us.

    If I see my RSS feeds climb above 1000, I simply take folders with the most unread and click “Mark all as read.” I accept the fact that I can’t possibly read through everything, and odds are, if I did miss anything important, it will come up in the next day.

    It’s the same with email. I use Google’s Priority Inbox and filters to keep track of the essential messages, and make sure everything else is sorted away (ie receipts – something I don’t really need to read). If I do miss an important message, I will receive a phonecall about it or the person will just visit me in person.

  • Donna

    If you have that many unread inbox messages you should consider unsubscribing from quite a few newsletters and such like!

    I aim for inbox zero every few days. That way I don’t miss anything and I keep on top of everything, which is important to me.

  • Peter

    Inbox Zero is a carry-over from the paper world. Remember, the trays you used to have on your desk?

    I keep all my mails in the inbox. They form a chronological record of (most) activities I undertake; and when it’s time to change to a new e-mail system/account/new PC it’s so much easer this way.

    Finding things? Well, how do you find things today? Use Google? Right. So do the same with your e-mail. Use a search engine such as Exalead Desktop Search, or the one built into Thunderbird. Or use Google mail/app.

    Moving e-mails into folders are soo yesterday! ;-)

  • http://www.twitter.com/jmck john mckenzie

    I admit sometimes an important message stays in my inbox unread because the incoming cascade pushes it past the bottom of the window before I fully comprehend its subject line. But I have also had the experience of having my own email overlooked by an Inbox Zero adherent whose kung fu filters and folders got the better of him.

  • http://thebankwatch.com Colin Henderson

    10K inbox makes email irrelevant. It will be more of a lottery if you find something or not. You must have a system no matter how loose.

    I have 3 emails:
    1. business
    2. personal
    3. subscriptions

    If any of 3 show in 1 or 2 I unsubscribe or spam it. When I worked at a corporation, I further sorted 1. into to: and cc:

    Anyhow result is that its easy to keep 1. and 2. at zero and 3. I just archive if it gets behind.

    Result – inbox zero.

  • mpw james

    I treat my inbox as just that an inbox. Mail comes in is read and distributed to the appropriate sub folder i.e. done, work in progress, information to keep etc. I do this a few times each day. The advantages 1. I can see immediatley each new email as it arrives and give it a priority in my working day. 2. Anything that is pending is in its own appropriate prioratised sub directory. 3 the inbox only contains newly arrived mail and “drop everything and do this now” mail. Maybe it is just me but I could not work with an inbox of thousands, hundreds or even tens of mails.

  • http://deepanalysis.blogspot.com Benjamin

    * Do you try to get your inbox down to zero unread messages? If so, why?

    Yes. Keeping my inbox empty allows me to see what’s newly arrived. It’s just like an oldfashion real mailbox

    Is inbox zero something you try to achieve every day? Every month? Every quarter?

    Inbox zero is something I do almost every time I check my e-mail. If I’m going to check my e-mail I go in and process at least the priority inbox but usually everything. That doesn’t mean I read everything, lots of things get “mark as read” and archived. I still have them and can review them but they’re out of the inbox. Other things get labled, read, starred, responded to etc.

    What does inbox zero represent to you? Does it have deeper meaning?

    It’s simply efficient, it doesn’t really have a deeper meaning. My inbox is clean, empty and waiting for more mail.

    Does inbox zero lead to better overall organization?

    Oh, yes. If I can’t keep it in the inbox it has to go somewhere and if I want to find it easily it gets a lable. Otherwise I simply search for things. Search is good enough I can always find the message, address, phone #, etc.

  • B Lane

    I try to establish rules for each sender, to file it automatically into the appropriate folder. This allows me to assess the importance of the email before I even read it. So the only things entering the inbox itself should be from unknown senders.

  • http://www.ninebyblue.com Vanessa Fox

    My goal is to reply to important messages. I have multiple filters in place so the only mail that makes it to my inbox is generally fairly important mail. So when I end the day with 200+ messages in my inbox, it means that I haven’t replied to 200+ important messages from clients, potential clients, employees, event coordinators asking me to speak, journalists asking for quotes, email from you asking me to write a blog post for Radar… ;)

    When my inbox isn’t zero, that means I am late getting back to people.

    In the intro to the this post, you say:

    “I have 10,021 unread messages in my inbox. Ignored newsletters and various bits of nearly-useless information make up most of that unread count (I think).”

    It’s the “I think” that causes anxiety in my case. I have another (older) account that many people still send email to with 8,400 messages sitting in the inbox. I have no way of knowing how many of those messages are newsletters and useless information and how many are critical. And I can’t possibly go through all 8400 to find out.

  • http://www.sitebyjames.com/ james

    Yes, I do try to catch all the emails coming in, and let me just say it is a bad habit. I tend to carry emotions over the course of several days. When I get stressed I usually stay locked in that mode for a while.

    It’s a huge disadvantage to be engaged in potentially stressful emails during that time. If left alone for a few days the damage done might be lesser.

    I usually have few important ones, so long if I can read them, I can keep them in memory for a few days before I have time to address them. Usually…

    If I can’t remember them, they are unimportant.

  • http://www.matthixson.me Matt Hixson

    I have practiced GTD for quite a while. I don’t a follow all of the practices but there is none more powerful than getting your email to zero. It is not about tidy it is about having one to do list. Each item is either trash, reference or a task. Having multiple list of to dos makes them all worthless because you don’t know where to look. Sounds like you need to get familiar with the delete key.

  • http://tomhughescroucher.com Tom Hughes-Croucher

    1. I do inbox zero. Why is below.

    2. I do inbox zero every time I use my inbox (hopefully only a few times a day).

    3. Inbox zero does not represent anything it is about moving task management to one definitive place.

    4. Inbox zero makes you more effective by allowing your GTD to be effective. Here is why:

    When you combine inbox zero and GTD you ensure that all the tasks you do become part of your GTD system. It stops tasks related to email becoming a second, badly organised GTD system.

    Inbox zero essentially asks you to do three things:
    1. Scan/Read each email
    2. Create a TODO associated with each email that requires one
    3. Delete emails that you don’t need to read again, archive those that you do.

    The important thing to note is that fully reading and understanding an email might be a TODO task. The idea is to allow your GTD system to continue to prioritise all your tasks (including reading long emails) rather than making email a special case.

    If you follow inbox zero with GTD then processing your inbox becomes a short task and then you generate a number of other tasks associated with the items you processed. Sometimes that means you just won’t get to them. If you follow GTD, you’ll know that’s ok. They just weren’t important enough compared to the other stuff you had to do.

  • http://www.instantheartrate.com Peter Kuhar

    Because of the notification icons.

  • Steve Hoefer

    My inbox is my communication to:do list. If it’s in there it needs to be acted on. So rarely do I have it at zero, though I’m happy when I do. Zero messages means I don’t have anyone waiting on me, I ‘m not waiting on anyone and I don’t have anything pending to read or reply to.

    - Is inbox zero something you try to achieve every day? Every month? Every quarter?

    It’s something I try to get every message. As soon as I check my mail the email gets acted on. If I’m not going to read it it gets trashed. It gets tagged for what it is (work, project, friends, receipts, etc.) If I can reply immediately I do, then clear it out of the inbox. The only things that say in are things that are waiting for an action. If I have to scroll to see all my messages (~20) in my in-box I have to get busy.

    - What does inbox zero represent to you? Does it have deeper meaning?

    It means that I have a reliable way to organize my email communications. (And is part of the reason that we resort to email even when there are other, often better ways to communicate. They don’t all converge on one place like email.) But a “deeper meaning” No. It’s not a religion, and those who act like it need to step back and get a grip. It’s just one of many filing systems.

    - Does inbox zero lead to better overall organization?

    For me, unquestionably. It makes sure that all my email is tagged/foldered which makes it easy to find stuff faster and more reliably. And I know at a glance which things I’ve let slip and need to get onto. Seeing an inbox that has tens of thousands of messages in it is like trying to find a book in a library organized by the purchase date of the books.

    However if you can have an inbox like that and not let important emails slip through and get everything done you need to then you have a system that works well and no need to change.

  • http://www.cornwall-it.co.uk Grant

    I try to get my inboxes down to zero unread messages as I find it useful to know when I have new messages and not have to remember what the previous unread count was. It is easier to look up at your mail client’s new mail notifier and see “3 unread messages” than it is to see “1042 unread messages” and try to remember that it was previously 1039 unread.

    I too get a lot of newletters and things – I tend to add them to a rule that moves them to a specific folder and then marks them as read. I know I get them – I signed up for them – but I don’t necessarily need to know the precise moment that I get them, so having them sit there unread doesn’t help me.

    Grant.

  • Austin

    The concept I pursue: ‘Having all of what you need but only what you need placed directly in front of you at all times keeps your mind focused on what is important.’

    I reach said goal by using Exchange/Outlook 2010 rules and folders and several functionally segmented email accounts. I never achieve inbox zero nor do I desire to, but I do consistently achieve zero unread.

  • Maxime

    To stay focused on what’s planned, I try to read my emails only 2 times a day (and never before 11am). It allows to stay focused on daily tasks and get things done faster… (for real emergencies I receive phone calls…not an email).

    Emails I really need are flagged or filed in subfolders according to the senders and subjects. The rest is read later if time and unread items are deleted twice a year… I guess it is a sort of “inbox zero” without the delete part of it.

    I wouldn’t trash too fast the ‘other’ emails because sometimes it makes you miss a great piece of information: our computers are big enough to keep this information undeleted. Search tools become your friends.

  • Austin

    My inbox currently has somewhere around 20,000 e-mails sitting in it, and others in other pseudo-randomly assigned “folders”. Every now and then I’ll attempt to “clean up”, but I’ve never seen inbox zero as a realistic goal for me.

    My motivation to clean out the inbox is simply to eliminate waste. To me, if there’s something in my IMAP account, it’s there for a reason. Future reference is the main one – I like keeping communication, attachments, etc. around in case I need to dig for it later (and I’ve even found myself looking YEARS back into my e-mail for this stuff on rare occasions!).

    Ultimately, however, the sheer volume of e-mail I get makes it unrealistic for me to categorize everything and move it into appropriate “folders” on the system. There’s just too much. So once or twice a week, I’ll go through and delete somewhere around 20-50 e-mails that don’t matter, but anything else that’s proof of a conversation or something to be referenced in the future stays put.

    My inbox will eventually hit the ceiling on capacity size, and at that point I’ll probably just nuke everything that’s older than “X” – maybe 3 years or something. That’ll probably free up a lot of space :)

  • Andy

    I’ll say the main reason I like inbox zero, and I only started sometime in the last 3-5 months, is that on my smartphone notification it’ll tell me the sender and subject if I have inbox 0 (or inbox 1 once it comes). Then, if I’m busy, I’ll only open it if it looks mostly unimportant, clicking on the notification will rid me of a notification and inbox 1 in one push. If it’s important, then I’ll let them pile up.

    I’ll also comment on someone who mentioned RSS, which I do like to keep clean, however, over time I subscribe to more feeds. So, now if my unread feeds gets above let’s say 300 on a busy day or 500 when I’m free: I read the best subscriptions first. Then, I’ll let the ones that have more filler build up for maybe two even 3 days, then I’ll sort by “magic” and try to blow through them as fast as possible. It’s a little unfortunate that I can’t just get those good opinions sent to me a little better, but they are a little under read.

    To clear my inbox I used this method to parse maybe 1,500 unread messages:

    I used to be pretty terrible at keeping my email clean, then I looked back through everything I had, maybe 3 months worth, only looking at sender and subject, if either was worthy of another look I starred it and moved on. After that, I looked at all my unread and starred emails, then I marked everything as read. Since then, I’ve tried to, at least for the ones that come once a month, remove myself from mailing lists that serve little purpose to me.

  • Andy

    I’ll say the main reason I like inbox zero, and I only started sometime in the last 3-5 months, is that on my smartphone notification it’ll tell me the sender and subject if I have inbox 0 (or inbox 1 once it comes). Then, if I’m busy, I’ll only open it if it looks mostly unimportant, clicking on the notification will rid me of a notification and inbox 1 in one push. If it’s important, then I’ll let them pile up.

    I’ll also comment on someone who mentioned RSS, which I do like to keep clean, however, over time I subscribe to more feeds. So, now if my unread feeds gets above let’s say 300 on a busy day or 500 when I’m free: I read the best subscriptions first. Then, I’ll let the ones that have more filler build up for maybe two even 3 days, then I’ll sort by “magic” and try to blow through them as fast as possible. It’s a little unfortunate that I can’t just get those good opinions sent to me a little better, but they are a little under read.

    To clear my inbox I used this method to parse maybe 1,500 unread messages:

    I used to be pretty terrible at keeping my email clean, then I looked back through everything I had, maybe 3 months worth, only looking at sender and subject, if either was worthy of another look I starred it and moved on. After that, I looked at all my unread and starred emails, then I marked everything as read. Since then, I’ve tried to, at least for the ones that come once a month, remove myself from mailing lists that serve little purpose to me.

  • Andy

    Double posted before, oh yeah, one other useful thing I did was searching and deleting all conversations from the most common junk feeds or unread senders, for instance: amazon, then select all (select all from hundreds) then delete all.

  • Tom

    inbox 0- no. I have lots of rules/filters, so I am relatively spam-free, and messages are thoroughly sorted by topics to different folders. I do not leave any messages un-read or untrashed. At regular intervals I more messages towards deletion (about a 3 month process) and then follow up. Once a year I archive what’s left, and begin again.

  • harry e

    I do not think that Inbox 0 is particularly important except for those people who find that that goal gives them some psychological (usually rather random or arbitrary in nature) edge. This is demonstrated by the fact that some earlier responses treat as crucial either the use of *or* the avoidance of an inbox – ToDo list connection. The goal of inbox 0 is incorporated differently in either case.
    The main thing is to leave your work in a form that will let you immediately grasp whether some item needs attention / can be ignored for now, and will give you on-demand access to immediately needed information. This may be through inbox 0, or through strategic ‘marking of messages as unread’ as a signal that they need attention soon, perhaps combined with the recognition of the power of message search in a capability as impressive as that in Gmail.

  • http://www.marmoset.com Caitlin Burke

    My inbox has a lot of to-do items in it, so I can’t let it just pile up. I lose track of important stuff if I’m lax about what’s come in after it, too. As long as I keep my inbox below 50 items, I don’t feel pressured to rush stuff that’s not important enough for right now, but I can still easily find items that I have to work on.

    The part of Inbox Zero that I do is make an immediately keep-or-toss call. I probably junk at least 80 percent of my email right after skimming my email headers. Mailers that give a few lines of preview are perfect for this, because I get a lot of little alerts whose information is within the first line or two. Great! I’m alerted! Now delete. I have a stupendous spam filter, so that’s not an issue for me.

    The parts of Inbox Zero, the thing, that are particularly useless for me are filtering and the short window for when something is old enough that you’ll never respond. In my case, filtered mail might as well go straight into the trash – if I don’t see when I open my mail client, it doesn’t exist, and it never will. And, as it happens, in my email pattern, there are plenty of things that are important in the grand scheme of things but can wait a month or three to get done.

    I think part of why this works for me is that I don’t have the efficiency drive or information overload that I hear other people express concern about. I am comfortable with lists of stuff, and I don’t feel stressed out by seeing a few dozen emails hanging around. Also, when I check my email, I just check my email: it’s literally a 30- to 60-second thing, and I find it easy to check just a few times a day. Finally, it’s convenient for me to let my inbox have a to-do list aspect, because I’ve never found a to-do list system that I couldn’t manage to forget about completely within a week or two.

  • http://efficionado.posterous.com Keith Pearce

    There’s only been one mention of Merlin Mann above. To my knowledge, he coined the phrase and is in the process of writing a book of the same name (finish it!!) As was mentioned, read 43folders.com and everything Merlin talked about on in (I recommend the podcasts, as well).

    You could have answered all your questions by doing so. I appreciate you getting the conversation going, but the answers are out there (with all due respect).

  • Joe

    The zero inbox is not anymore important to the “follow up” folder with each message getting a defined follow up time set.

  • Anant

    I do follow a zero inbox religiously. I however, did try to allow things to flow up. But after a month, I found loads of important mails that I had simply missed. That’s when I decided to go back and sort my mail out. As for the newsletters I hadn’t read or simply deleted, I just unsubscribed to them.

  • José

    First of all, I haven’t read the rest of the comments, so maybe this information is repeated. I’ll try to answer your questions:

    1. Do you try to get your inbox down to zero unread messages? If so, why?
    Yes. Inbox zero is related to GTD (Getting Things Done), a method to improve your productivity created by David Allen. The method proposes to free your mind from everything, and get all the things you must do into a reliable system, so you can pick what it needs to be done at any moment, and completely focus on it. So I do it because I try to follow this method to improve my productivity. (This is the short answer, more below)

    2. Is inbox zero something you try to achieve every day? Every month? Every quarter?
    I try to achieve inbox zero EVERY TIME I process my inbox. This uses to be almost every day.

    3. What does inbox zero represent to you? Does it have deeper meaning?
    First, what is inbox? (not only in the mail sense, but in the GTD sense). Inbox is the stuff that requires some attention from you, but you still don’t know what you have to do related to it. So inbox zero means I have processed all that stuff, and:
    * Deleted unneeded stuff
    * Done things related to that stuff that didn’t take more than a couple of minutes to do it (for example, a quick answer to a mail)
    * Archived things that I want to keep for future reference
    * Classified things that need further action, and decided what is the next action to do

    So ultimately the meaning of inbox zero is that I’m sure I don’t forget anything to do, and avoid some bad habits described in GTD (that I actually had before):
    * Mark as unread messages you want to review later: you end up losing those mails in a crowded inbox and forgetting to do the required action
    * Let read or processed messages in your inbox: you end up with a crowded inbox where everything is messed and with elements requiring different things in the same place (unneeded messages, messages to process, reference information). Searching anything here becomes a nightmare, although GMail and its search has mitigated this

    4. Does inbox zero lead to better overall organization?
    Yes, but only if its part of a wider method. Inbox zero per se does not provide better organization, it’s just part of a process where everything needs to be done the right way if you want to really be better organized.

    For further information, read “Getting Things Done” (David Allen) or take a look at the Wikipedia.

    Hope this helps

  • Alberto Acero

    The question is not inbox zero. You should only have mails that implies an action to do. Inbox = Action system

  • Tony

    I run multiple businesses with many different mail, twitter, facebook accounts. Inbox Zero -for me- is a sheer impossibility because of time zone and location differences. If I really want to end my workweek with a “0″ inbox, the person I collaborate with and is a few time zones behind me will definitely send me something before I wake up next morning :)

    Also for some important communication, replies are better well researched and prepared and not just send off quickly towards the end of the day (or week) to ensure an inbox zero smile on my face. It’s not only what gets done, but how it gets done.

    Yet, I fully agree on one point – without overview, prioritizing is highly ineffective. Making (more or less) educated guesses is really what happens the moment you start having a scroll bar in your inbox. For me therefore – rather than inbox zero – I place the importance on not having a scrollbar at the end of every working day and reduce my messages to a minimum towards the end of the week.

    I also changed my entire communication and collaboration habits (check twitter here, facebook there, email tehre, gmail there…) into one central unified communication inbox
    . For only when all my messages are in one place, I can truly say “inbox zero” – otherwise it really remains a mere illusion…

  • http://laurent.hausermann.org Laurent Hausermann

    Well, I have just shared my thought in a blog post (in french, http://laurent.hausermann.org/archive/2010/11/19/inbox-zero-tgv.html).

    I think the key point is being organized, and as many said here, getting things done.

    I found Inbox Zero a valuable system for :

    – Beeing effective when opening my email client. An inbox is not a Todo List ; it’s more a place to receive messages. Your todo list would be a text files ; a piece of paper or a GTD system. I think many people are sitting in front of their desk and open the inbox. Then they are answering emails and doing things in a kind of infinite loop, without “thinking” about what is important, what is urgent, what would be done by another person… Inbox Zero is a pragmatic answer to that issue.

    – Reduce the stress I could have looking at a bunch of things to be done or messages to be “handled”. I found that having a clean living room, a clean desk and a clean inbox, brings me peace and energy to do MORE things.

  • Boris Doris

    I was unaware of the meme before I read your post. But yes, I keep my inbox clean. And that doesn’t mean zero unread messages, it means zero messages.

    I have a set of filters that redirect messages to subfolders, and messages that are just newsletters or logfiles get marked as read immediately. Together with a well-maintained Bayesian spam filter, that reduces the amount of messages that I need to triage manually to a minimum. That doesn’t mean I read all messages on the spot, but I sort them and mark the ones that I need to read or act upon with flags such as “Personal”, “Urgent”, “Save attachments”, “Reply”, “Later” etc. So these flags are sort of a todo list, only that it’s not long and I see at a glance what there is to do. I also use Thunderbird’s Virtual Folders and “Convert to Task” a lot.

    OTOH I don’t let email stress me out. I have disabled all new message alerts. People who need to reach me urgently can use IM or SMS. But an IM that only says “check your inbox” will be duly ignored – zero tolerance for multichanellers! (And never give anyone more than one of your email addresses.)

    Less clutter -> more happiness. Also, empty inbox -> speedy IMAP server.

    Oh, and I don’t use discussion mailing lists, and I unsubscribe from as many newsletters as possible. A newsletter that doesn’t let me unsubscribe easily (many companies use misconfigured mailing lists) will be added to the spam filter. Email for broadcast is wrong, that’s what feeds are for. An unread email is not like an unread feed item. Feeds are like snowflakes. They’re impersonal and ephemeral. If I didn’t catch something it wasn’t important, or it will be old news by the time I get around to reading it, so why store it in the first place? Less unread mass mailings -> less guilt.

  • Nathan D. Ryan

    I find “inbox zero” to be too stressful.

    Thinking about this highlights the multifaceted use of email as a delivery medium. I use it (or have used it) for newsletters, calendar reminders and other triggered alerts, automated document delivery or delivery notification, subscribed advertisement, etc. My inbox contains very few pending emails of the “conversation” variety.

    Once these uses are amalgamated into a single delivery stream, they are difficult to separate again. Thus we have inbox search, priority inbox, etc. It seems to me that the more appropriate solution to this conflated deluge is not to combine these uses in the first place. I should have a delivery channel for failed builds that is separate from that used for messages about the office break room, for example, without the need for fuzzy filtering on magic strings in the header.

    Additionally, the UI of a mail client is inappropriate for some of these uses. Depending on their function, some messages take a disproportionate amount of screen real estate or require more cognitive effort to process than is probably necessary. This creates a suboptimal experience that degrades what I consider to be the primary purpose of email, which is asynchronous electronic conversation among small parties involving mid-level volumes of unstructured data.

  • http://Rvt.com Shawn

    It ensures that each email gets dealt with, rather than buried and forgotten or missed. Also, each piece is easily categorized, so important messages are answered quickly, and not-so-important are either deleted or put on the shelf for later. Having to look through 50 unimportant or garbage emails in search for the important one you missed, is a hassle and makes for foggy thinking.

  • javier

    Inbox zero is my religion, it helps me to stay on top of things and I pursue this practice in an hourly basis. The reasons are mainly two:

    First, if one day I want to back up my received messages I won’t be backing-up garbage, I think that saving those bytes is important for the environment as well. My Trash directory contains several GB that I will save the day I decide to back up my Inbox directory.

    Second, If I leave e-mails unread for a few days then it becomes more difficult for me to sort which e-mails are really “pending issues” and which ones are just part of the bulk of useless messages that anyone receives daily. I tried once to be carefree about this and I found myself having issues with anxiety, being afraid that there maybe pending issues among those unread e-mails.

  • http://blog.adriania.com.ar Adriano

    More than Inbox 0, I’d like to accomplish “No message left behind”. Usually, if I don’t respond to a message I really ought to in the first minutes after reading it, it “goes on the pile” and suddenly it’s two months after and I didn’t confirm my assistance to a marriage.

  • http://getitdone.quickanddirtytips.com Stever Robbins

    If you’re pursuing inbox zero, the one thing that’s guaranteed is that you’re killing your productivity. You’re expanding your triage and mail processing time to meet the volume that is being generated by other people, whose idea of how your time is best spent probably doesn’t correspond remotely with yours.

    Even triaging email takes mental energy and decision-making. If you insist on giving every message in your inbox consideration, you’re letting others (the senders of the messages) control your attention and your triage time.

    Here’s my favorite Inbox Zero technique. It still involves triage, but through clever use of decision architecture and defaults, it greatly lessens your email load: Select All then Delete. You can still rescue and process any messages that demand replies from your Deleted Messages folder, but charge yourself $5 for each one you rescue. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to decrease your email load by 90%.

  • Mongo

    Every Monday morning I mark all messages read.

    I give priority to opening messages from recognized senders when my name is in the to: line.

    Filters and rules are applied to all messages when my name isn’t on the to: line.

    Company spam filters mask my inbox from nearly all spam.

    I rarely open messages when my name is on the cc line.

    When responding to not so urgent messages I set the delivery time for the next weekday morning.

    my email client is set to send/receive every 2 hours.

  • Nathan

    My yahoo account is pretty good at filtering spam and I usually can keep my unread email down to a handful. I tend to have two email account one which is personal and the other my work email, this tends to keep things manageable. I also actively monitor who subscribes to my twitter account and I am very selective about which providers I give my information to. I think it boils down to what is critical information and which opinions do you respect.

  • http://www.roundpeg.biz Lorraine Ball

    There is something so drepressing about opening an inbox with so many things you have not dealt with.

    InBox Zero is like a Triage process for email. It doesn’t mean that you actually respond to everything, but you simply look at and take some type of action:
    Respond
    Delegate – pass on to someone else, and more the email to a “waiting for” folder which allows you to follow up on your schedule
    Dispose of – Delete the junk and move on
    Delay – Move to Action Required. This is where my to do list is.

    The result? When new emails arrive, I can address critical items, and then take time for things which need time

  • http://orlinska.com Karolina Orlinska

    My work email used to be mailbox zero, but ever since I started to work outside of my own office I read all the emails that are coming in. I get informed on my HTC when there is a new mail and then I check the headlines and the “from”. If it seems important I respond right away if that’s possible. If it’s not possible I mark it as “to be followed up”. The unimportant emails continue to pile up… and sometimes I do feel bad about this.
    And yes I agree, Google Priority inbox was one of their best ideas… my unread emails jump from steady 400 till 1200 in just about few months

  • Sophie N

    I found a reference to your post here http://www.emailsecuritymatters.com/site/blog/best-practices/email-overload-how-are-we-doing-so-far-part-2/ can trying to achieve inbox zero be due in part to ones (slightly obsessive) personality?!

  • vijayakumar

    Every time I check my mails I will either read mails or ignore few and mark them as read. I will also star few mails, and report few mails in my inbox as spam (500+ so far), but I have never left any messages unread.

  • http://boomerangresults.com Neil Richmund

    Getting to inbox zero is certainly a “pie in the sky” concept as far as I am concerned, but I do believe inbox management is key. Folders and filtering enable me to keep up with my email.

    I use Google apps for my email and adding stars and labels enables me to manage my email.