Regaining control of e-mail with Inbox Zero

In my day job (the one that pays the bills… not this website), my boss is a guy called Garry Martin. At the risk of sounding sycophantic, I can learn a lot from Garry – not only because he somehow manages to walk the fine line between technical knowledge and effective management, but because he seems to do it with effortless efficiency. Modestly, he tells me that its all a façade and that I should see his office at home but there is a saying that perception is reality – and my perception is that he is highly productive – so I’m trying to learn some of the life hacking techniques that he uses.

The first on his list of techniques is Getting Things Done (GTD). I haven’t read David Allen’s book on GTD and my attempt to listen to the audio version on a transatlantic flight last November resulted in my falling asleep – so that didn’t get much done. Even so, I do listen to a lot of podcasts featuring Merlin Mann, who is something of a GTD evangelist, and have been meaning for some time now to watch the Google Tech Talk video on the method of e-mail management that Merlin refers to as Inbox Zero. It’s no co-incidence that Garry uses this method, and after he helped me to convert to the system last week, I’m hooked.

You see, I have long since been a slave to my e-mail – and as for RSS feeds, I rarely find the time to look at them (ironic for a prolific blogger). I also find instant messaging and SMS very inefficient methods of communication. So, I decided to start 2008 with a new system for managing mail – less frequent e-mail checks, fewer hierarchical folders, and more efficiency. It didn’t work. I still found that every month I needed a day to sort out e-mail. That is not the idea of productivity that I had in mind. I had the right ideas but was failing to process to zero.

Enter Inbox Zero.

“One of the most important soft skills you can have is figuring out how to deal with a high volume of e-mail.”

[Merlin Mann]

Inbox Zero is based on GTD – also known as advanced common sense. That is to say that the principles are obvious, but that we don’t always do obvious things. In his Google Tech Talk, Mann outlined four principles for e-mail management:

  1. E-mail is just a medium.
  2. There is one place for anything (no need for hierarchy).
  3. Process to zero (every time that you check e-mail – just checking is not enough).
  4. Convert to actions (even if that action is just to delete the message).

“One of the most important soft skills you can have is figuring out how to deal with a high volume of e-mail”

Mann suggest that just 5 verbs are enough to process all e-mail (delete, delegate, respond, defer and do) – I’m using a slightly different set of folders but the principle is the same – sorting messages (both Inbox and Sent Items) into a limited number of categories:

  • Action – I need to do something with this.
  • Archive – one folder, no hierarchy, searchable.
  • Review – have a look at this later.
  • Someday – this might be interesting, but not now.
  • Waiting – waiting for a response from someone else.

So that’s the structure, but how does it actually help to Get Things Done? Firstly, stop leaving e-mail open all day – get into the habit of regular processing – Merlin Mann suggests these tips:

  1. Do e-mail less (go and work!). Do you really need to look at your messages more than hourly? I try to only look at my mail only three to five times a day but that is practically impossible with the mail client open and notifications appearing every few minutes. So close Outlook/ Entourage/Evolution/Thunderbird/Mail, or whatever you use. And only open it for as long as it takes to process the Inbox to zero, a few times a day. It may feel a bit like going cold turkey but believe me, it’s worth it.
  2. Cheat. Filter e-mail and check daily, weekly, or whatever. So, for example, I receive a bunch of corporate communications that rarely require action. I can filter them straight to my review folder and check them daily.
  3. No fiddling. Forget the “where did I put stuff” mentality that comes with hierarchical storage systems. Inbox Zero is about creating and managing actions – anything more than that is just playing with e-mail.

Finally, when you set up your Inbox Zero structure, what about the pile of e-mail that is already waiting to be processed? Mann suggests two possibilities for this:

  1. E-mail bankruptcy – BCC everyone in your address book and tell them you are starting afresh and to resend anything that is important.
  2. That may not go down too well in a work environment so try an e-mail DMZ – copy everything to a folder, set up the Inbox Zero folders and process the DMZ in batches, as and when time permits. It still needs to be processed to zero but starting off with a mountain of e-mail will not help to get you organised.

The Inbox Zero video embedded above (or the audio version) should be mandatory reading for everyone in my organisation. The first 30 minutes are Merlin Mann’s talk and the second half consists of audience questions. Having managed to regain some control over my work communications (and it’s early days but I have a good feeling about this), I’m going to attack my home e-mail – all 3612 Inbox items (2504 unread), 1634 sent items, and hundreds of folders worth of messages.

4 thoughts on “Regaining control of e-mail with Inbox Zero


  1. Mark,

    I think this is great – a lot of people I know could benefit from it.

    I don’t think I get a high volume of mail, but seem to manage it along those lines. I find windows desktop search has revolutionised the way I archive mail – there is no no hierarchy in it, but only because I now have a search capability which wil find what I want, when!

Leave a Reply