Five Minutes to Inbox Zero

Five Minutes to Inbox Zero – Overcoming the E-mail Avalanche

(Text of my Spark Talk – Public Library Association Conference, March 22, 2018)


Let’s go! I only have five minutes to tell you the five things you can do with an email. First of all in a show of hands, how many of you have completely emptied all your email inboxes at some point in the last 24 hours?  I mean completely empty – everything – no read or unreads, absolutely zero messages inside.  For those of you who have, go ahead and take a five minute nap.  For the rest of you, pay close attention if you want to be an Efficient Librarian.

Most people use their inbox to manage their entire workflow process, mixing actionable items with waiting fors, someday maybes, and archives.  They never even take out the trash!  This would be like having a giant box on your desk and throwing every piece of paper inside it and then expecting to do productive, timely work.  Ain’t happening.

You see, this digital world we live in calls for a new kind of martial art.  You need to channel your inner Neo or Trinity, or for the super cool ones, Morpheus, and take the path of the Efficient Librarian. As I wrote in my article for Public Libraries Magazine, Nov/Dec 2017, an Efficient Librarian is an elite knowledge worker navigating the complexity of the post-Internet information world.  This includes mastery of email.

Let me ask you this, how many of you enjoy missing deadlines?  How many of wake up in the morning hoping that it will be a stressful, pressure packed, hectic day?  I say unless you love chaos, very few of you want to work this way.  Far too many people misuse their inbox and as a result create a huge source of stress in their life and that of their colleagues.  That is why I believe mastery of your email is vital to creating a playful work environment full of purpose that allows you to reach your full potential.

First please understand the purpose of the inbox.  When Thor came down from Asgard to give the first Vikings an inbox, he designed it for one task only – to identify new input. The inbox is horrible as an action reminder, archive, or any other purpose aside from showing your latest messages.  Thor would cast down a thunderbolt on any Viking foolish enough to misuse the inbox.

Alas, Thor has been slacking with his responsibilities since he moved to Hollywood, so it is up to each one of us to take the Efficient Librarian path.

At this point I need you all to take the Inbox Oath.  Please put your left hand over your heart and your right hand in the air.  Repeat after me, “My Inbox is not a Storage Location, it is a Processing Station.”  Very good, you have now all committed to keeping a clean inbox going forward.  So you might be asking yourself how that is possible.  Pay close attention grasshopper and you will find out.

The secret is that there are only five things you can do with any message in your inbox. Hold up a hand and spread out your fingers like the Subway five dollar foot-long ads. Okay here is what you need to know.

The first option is to trash the message, that’s your pinky.  Get rid of as much as you can out of your inbox as soon as you recognize junk.  You already have a Trash folder ready to go even if you haven’t used it yet.

The second option is to archive it, that’s your ring finger.  That’s all the stuff you want to save in case you need it later. Now be careful to avoid the indexing temptation to create million different subject folders.  Dare yourself to go with one archive folder and then be ready to power search the heck out of it when needed.

The third option is your middle finger, representing Someday/Maybe.  This category is for good ideas you are not ready to work with yet. It is also known as your dream folder for items you might want to do in the future.  Newsletters can go in here as well for future reading.

The fourth option is waiting for, your pointing finger.  These are messages that you have sent out to others and are now waiting for a response.  Create a Waiting For folder to keep a list of everything you have sent out that needs a response.

The fifth option is your thumb for action.  The messages that you need to do something about as soon as possible, such as write them back, complete a task, or engage for a project. These sit in a spiffy action folder.

Once these folders are in place, it is an easy matter to slide messages out from the inbox very quickly. That’s all it takes to start on the road of the Efficient Librarian.

If you have a bit of backlog, I suggest just going through the last three months of email.  Anything older probably non-actionable and can be archived or trashed.

To learn more, please visit my blog at  And get yourself a copy of the book, Getting Things Done, by David Allen, which was the inspiration for this talk.  Now in the time remaining, I am going to demonstrate this technique before your very eyes.  I will zero out my inboxes right now.  Bam!