How to Get to Inbox Zero

Text of a talk given at the PLA 2022 National Conference on the “How To” stage.

How many emails do you have in your inbox right now, read or unread? 

In my informal polling, most people have anywhere from dozens to hundreds or even thousands of messages. Keep in mind that a 2019 study by DMR estimated that the average person received 121 emails a day. Without a fast and efficient system to dispatch these messages, inbox backlog will slow down work and increases stress. While one could declare email bankruptcy by deleting the entire contents of the inbox, this is hardly practical. Instead, with the application of a few simple best practices the stress of email management can be vanquished.

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David Allen, author of the bestselling book, Getting Things Done, has thought deeply about workflow. He developed a system of best practices that revolve around managing workflow in an efficient manner. This approach can be used by any level of knowledge worker. It starts with a basic premise, so please repeat after me:

My inbox is not a storage location. It is a processing station.

The purpose of your inbox is to alert you when new content arrives. Yet many people use it as an inefficient space to manage workflow for a wide variety of actionable and non-actionable items. When the inbox is opened, everything has to be scanned to identify new content and to get reacquainted with the backlog. A better approaches is to clear out the inbox completely every 24-48 hours. This may seem an impossible task. To resolve it, David Allen created a Workflow Diagram that guides users through a simple thought process to resolve any item in the inbox with three basic questions:

1/ What is it? – Identify the purpose of the message and what it means to you.

2/ Is it Actionable? – Only two possible answers here, yes or no. If no, store it in reference, someday/maybe, or trash it. If yes, ask the third question.

3/ What is the Next Action? – That means, what is the next physical thing that needs to be done to move the item forward. Examples include having a conversation with a colleague, drafting a memo, researching online, or simply replying to the message.

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Ultimately, there are only five things you can do with an email. 

1/ Trash it. Why keep garbage around if you don’t have to? 

2/ Save it as reference material for potential use later. For this, you can either create one folder called “Reference” to store all your saved messages, or a small set of additional folders to store email from your major correspondents (i.e. boss, direct reports, section colleagues, etc.). No more than ten archive folders are recommended.

3/ Store it in a good ideas folder, known as Someday/Maybe. An example would be an advertisement for a workshop you might want to attend one day, just not right now. Stash the message in the “someday/maybe” folder for review at a later date. 

4/ Place it in a “Waiting For” folder. These are items that you sent off to another person for a response. Put the email in a “Waiting For” folder as a reminder to contact the person if they fail to respond after a reasonable time. 

5/ Move it to an “Action” folder. These are messages that only you can respond to, but are not ready to do so immediately. Store them in an “action” folder to work on when time becomes available.

Sometimes people worry that their backlog is so huge it can never be cleared. For those people, I recommend this approach.

1/ Sort the inbox by sender to group items together that can be deleted or archived in bulk.

2/ Next sort by date and send everything three months or older to the trash or archive as they probably have no actionable value.

3/ Finally, use the technique described above to clear out the remainder. 

A few final tips:

1/ Turn off all notifications for new messages. That includes all pop-ups, sounds, or vibrations. These alerts are distracting and unproductive since most emails are not worth your immediate attention.

2/ Unsubscribe from all newsletters and advertisements. Keep only those ones that you really like or use frequently. Stopping email from coming in is a great time saver.

3/ Use the Two Minute Rule. This is a technique popularized by David Allen. Whenever you identify something in your inbox that can be completed in two minutes or less, do it right away. It will save time in the long run and make you feel more productive.

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Using this simple system will bring appreciation for the strategic value of clear space both electronically, physically, and mentally. 

Some great resources to check out that served as source material for this article include David Allen’s, the original “Inbox Zero” web site, and my blog,