The Therapeutic Effects of the Empty Inbox

The most effective technique I use to stay productive is to achieve Inbox Zero every day. “Inbox Zero” is an idea that was introduced by productivity guru Merlin Mann as a Google tech talk in 2007. The goal of Inbox Zero is simple: keep your email inbox empty or close to empty at all times.

Mann recommended achieving this by not just checking email, but processing it. To process an email means doing one of five things: delete, delegate, respond, defer, and do. These five actions help me achieve Inbox Zero bliss, and they can work for you, too.

Some email platforms make it easier to perform these actions than others. In this article, I will describe how I use Gmail and the add-on tool Boomerang. Gmail’s generous storage and superior search free users from having to categorize emails in folders, an artificial construct that always confounds people like me who can’t choose consistent filenames to save their life. Folderless email (actually, “minimally foldered” is probably a better description, as Gmail does make use of at least some folders) makes it a lot easier to achieve Inbox Zero. But I will recommend similar approaches for folder-based email clients like Outlook, too.

Delete (or, better yet, archive). Some email can be read and forgotten, either because it is unimportant, easy to remember, quick to act upon, or relevant for only a short time. Delete these emails. If the word “delete” sounds too final to you, Gmail provides the option to archive the email instead of deleting it. Archived email will linger on the server, though in a separate folder, out of your inbox. The wonderful thing about archiving is that archived email will show up when you search through old email. I’ve recovered important email from ten years ago thanks to archiving, and I find it an invaluable tool for preserving my professional memory.

Delegate. We all get emails requesting things that we can’t do entirely ourselves. When this happens, forward the email to the best person for the job and, optionally, copy the sender on it when you do so that they know their request is being addressed by you and others. Boomerang allows you to check a box that will return the email to you if the person you’ve forwarded it to doesn’t reply in a timely manner. That way, if the person you’ve sent the email to doesn’t respond, you can send them a reminder. If you don’t use Gmail and Boomerang, then add an event on your calendar to follow up.

Respond. As soon as you read an email to which you can respond, do so … thoughtfully … and then archive the email. Don’t skip over the word “thoughtfully” in that sentence! We occasionally receive email that frustrates us or causes us anxiety. Our first instinct might be to fire back an angry response. Go ahead and write such responses, but don’t send it immediately. Let it linger in your Drafts folder or, if you have Boomerang, click the Send Later button, with yourself as the intended recipient. That way, you still get to vent, you’ve still cleared the worrisome email from you inbox, and you can either edit, scrap, or send the email to the original sender after you’ve let it simmer a while. Personally, I wish I had discovered this strategy sooner!

Defer. Many emails ask us to do things that are going to take longer than just a few minutes. Respond to the user to acknowledge that you received the email and that you will be working on it and hope to be done by some estimated date. Add the email’s tasks to your todo list, and then use Boomerang to have the email return to you at a particular date and time, optionally specifying a reminder note to return with it to provide context. The email will vanish from your inbox, only to return at the specified date. If you don’t have Gmail and Boomerang, then set an event on your calendar to return to the email and check your progress, and then move the email to a email’s to-do folder.

Boomerang’s options for deferring an email to return at a later time

It is important to add the email’s tasks to a separate to-do list so that you can plan and monitor your progress to complete the work. I maintain a very simple running to-do list in Evernote, which gives me the tactile joy of actually being able to check the box next to each task I complete. A separate to-do list is so much better than using your email inbox as a to-do list, if for no other reason than to experience the happiness of checking off boxes of the tasks you’ve completed.

Do. If an email requests a task that can be done right then and there, do it, report to the sender, and then archive the email. If your email doesn’t support archiving, then create a folder called “Done”, and move your completed emails there. Regardless, get it out of your inbox!

Every day becomes a challenge for me to clear my inbox. It might seem like a trivial accomplishment, but meeting that challenge every day keeps me on top of my work and makes me feel good about my performance. You should try it.

About Ray Klump

Associate Dean, College of Aviation, Science, and Technology at Lewis University Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University,, You can find him on Google+.

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