Inbox Zero: A better way to manage email

At all levels of academia email is a used and often abused form of communication.  Whether you use a Mac, iPad, or iPhone to view and write email, you can use the principles of Inbox Zero.  With evolving technology continuing to lower the barriers to communication, the number of inputs we receive in a given day continues to increase.    Unfortunately, we often don’t take the necessary steps to train ourselves on how to best deal with these inputs.  Well, that will change by reading this article.

Merlin Mann, get to know him!

To help deal with our always growing inboxes, productivity guru Merlin Mann created the Inbox Zero methodology.  As the term suggested, one of the principles of Inbox Zero is that your email inbox should be processed to zero.  Imagine an email inbox with zero messages.  Crazy thought isn’t it.  It may seem crazy to some, but often these are the same people that scroll up and down an inbox with hundreds, sometime thousands of messages using each message as a makeshift task manager.  Now, doesn’t that sound even crazier?

Check less, process more

Let’s start the discussion with the idea of processing.  In Inbox Zero, “Processing is more than checking but less than responding”.  The best way to describe this concept is to recommend Merlin Mann’s 2007 Google Talk.

As a quick aside, this talk is an excellent example of how to use slides in a presentation.  Probably one of my all time favourite slide decks (slides here).  I recommend almost anything Merlin Mann does.  His humour may not be for everyone (You Look Nice Today podcast) but when he speaks about productivity everyone should listen.  He has a book coming out soon called Inbox Zero.  Learn more at  

In the talk, Merlin suggested that many of us treat email like an inefficient cook in a deli.  The inefficient cook constantly checks for new orders, working on a given order for a minute or two, and then checking again for more new orders.  Instead, the cook would be much more efficient by limiting how often he checked for new orders and just made sandwiches.

What Inbox Zero suggests is that instead of constantly checking to see if we have new messages and then letting email sit in our inbox, evolving into a very poor task manager, we should process email.  

What does processing look like?

Anytime you open an email, try applying one of the following Inbox Zero actions:

Delete  If you receive an email that will not result in an immediate or later action, delete it.  Examples include: departmental/faculty general notices, newsletter subscriptions you have read, and meeting confirmations.  If you use an email service like Gmail with lots of storage space, archiving instead of deleting may be an option.

Delegate  If you are not the best person to respond or take action on the email, forward it to the appropriate person.  For example, if the email is to be addressed by someone else in your department or research group, forward it to them and get it out of your inbox.

Respond   If the response can be written in two minutes or less write it and send it.  Tip: Set a timer and write a few emails.  It takes practice to realize how long two minutes last when writing an email.  

Defer  If the response will be longer than two minutes, defer the writing.  The important step here is to not leave the message in your inbox.  One suggestion is to move the email message into an ‘Action’ folder or apply an ‘Action’ label.  Then, when you have some time to write, go to the Action message and start typing.

Do  Do the actions related to your email.  This can include responding or working on an document.


Take the Challenge: Process to inbox zero

Don’t panic.  You won’t be graded on this homework.  What I would suggest is that you try the above approach for one week.  Will you get your inbox to zero in one day.  Probably not.  Will you feel better after a week of apply these principles and seeing your inbox shrink?  Probably.

Leave a comment on your progress or any tips/trick on how to best manage your email.


Disclaimer: All images by Merlin Mann. Please consider sharing this article if you found it useful.

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