The Empty Inbox: Honing Productivity in Email Management

It’s likely that everyone with an email account has, at one time or another, suffered from the bane of an inbox teeming with must reads, must responds and must act. Indeed, if one were to track all the time in a workday spent glued to our incoming messages and bowing to the attention they require, the resulting accumulation of hours would no doubt seem ridiculously exhaustive.


Enter productivity expert Merlin Mann, who debuted an exciting concept at a Google Tech Talk several years ago. His idea, known as Inbox Zero, is a defined and calculated approach to email management that seeks to keep one’s inbox clear—or nearly clear—at all times.

Mann is quick to point out that his approach isn’t directed so much towards the number of messages that plague our inboxes, bur rather the amount of time our brains spend dwelling there. Time and attention are finite, Mann notes, and productivity suffers considerably when we confuse our email inbox with a to-do list.

The platform of Mann’s concept centers around five possible and desirable actions to take for each message that finds its way to our inbox: delete, delegate, respond, defer and do. Also, he lists several critical elements that everyone should take to heart if they’re looking to tame the time they spend hovering over their email.

  • Don’t leave your inbox open on your desktop or tablet.
  • Set aside a certain time (or times) of the day when you will devote yourself to processing email.
  • When you first view your inbox for the day, delete or archive as many new messages as possible.
  • Forward as many messages as possible to someone else that can answer them (an action that of course works well in an business or supervisor/employee environment).
  • Respond immediately only to those messages that you can effectively answer in two minutes or less.
  • Create a separate folder on your email to archive any messages that can be responded to at a later time or that require more than two minutes to answer. Then, use that certain time you’ve set aside each day and work through this folder.

As previously mentioned, Mann’s vision of Inbox Zero is not about having nothing in your inbox, although his concept has unfortunately been co-opted to fit that definition. After all, anyone can zip through their messages and take an “out of sight, out of mind” tact towards email management. And of course it feels great to be able to point to our empty inbox with a sense of satisfaction. But if one truly takes the basis of Inbox Zero to heart, they’ll discover that it’s not about seeking the daily end goal of having an empty inbox: rather it’s about sticking to a coherent plan for dealing with new messages so you don’t spend inordinate amounts of time completely immersed in said task, time that inevitably takes your away from other duties and tasks, whether they be business-related or personal.

As Mann notes, “It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life. That ‘zero?’ It’s not how many messages are in your inbox, it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.”


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