The elusive inbox zero… Have you ever seen it?
Well, soon you might get lucky because here come the best tactics to get to inbox zero.
This article will break down the inbox zero philosophy and explain the principles and processes you need to follow. We’ve also pulled together three of our favorite inbox zero apps to help you manage your messages, productivity, and email anxiety.
What is inbox zero
Okay, so what’s the point of all of this? Why try to get to inbox zero?
The average American has 47 unread emails, but many of us have more – in some cases, thousands of unread and unactioned emails. Getting your inbox to zero takes some time upfront, and to keep it that way, you’ll need to follow a zero inbox strategy.
The term zero inbox was coined by Merlin Mann. There’s nothing revolutionary about staying on top of your inbox as business guru Mann explains in this retro 2007 video:
If you don’t have the time to watch the video, Mann explains that unopened emails are a sign that you’re not managing your messages correctly – and that could be affecting how efficiently you work. “Once you’ve mined the gold out of your emails, it’s time to throw them away,” says Mann.
A messy inbox is a symptom of an unfocused mind, suggests Mann. Zero inbox is, on the face of it, about cutting down on email fatigue. But it’s also a much broader strategy for refining how you work, optimizing time, improving efficiency, and reducing unnecessary stress.
Instead of having an email inbox clogged up with unread messages, you should take the time to read and action emails (respond or delete) and then file them away. Only the most dedicated disciple of the theory will achieve a true zero inbox (not even Mann can manage that, as he explains in this Wired article).
This brings us to an important point. It’s not essential to have a total of zero emails in your inbox. It’s more important to minimize the number of actionable items.
How to achieve inbox zero
The simplest way to get your inbox to zero is to mark them all as read (or delete them!), but that’s obviously not appropriate. Instead, you need to develop a system to manage the emails, storing them in ways that make sense to you.
Mann created what he calls his “five articles of faith” that can help you
- Some messages are more equal than others. If your inbox is anything like ours, about 50% of messages can be ditched and discarded straight away. The lesson? Not all emails are equal. Some can be deleted without even reading them. Try to get really good at this!
- Your time is priceless and wildly limited. Your time at work is limited, and reading and answering emails may not be the best way to use it. Some people limit email checking time to specific periods in a day, it’s a strategy that can help you focus on the most important aspects of your job.
- Less can be so much more. If you’re a polite person, one-word replies can seem rude, but if they’re good enough for Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, then it could work for you. OK, so some emails will require a long reply – but not every email. Do what’s most efficient for you.
- Lose the guilt. A groaning inbox full of unopened emails isn’t something to beat yourself up over. Lose the guilt, look after yourself and keep the focus on the endgame. Sure, it may take some time to get to inbox zero (and you may never truly achieve it), but anything you do to reduce email overload is going to be positive.
- Lying to yourself doesn't empty an inbox. If emptying your inbox is a priority, you’ll make time for it. Lying to yourself or putting it off for another day won’t. If you’re aiming to achieve inbox zero, then crack on.
These basic principles form the philosophy of inbox zero and can be applied using a method. But what method? See below for some inbox zero strategies you can use.
Simple inbox zero method
The fundamental principle of every zero inbox method is to ensure that every email is actioned as soon as it is opened. Too many of us use our email programs as “to-do” lists, and as a result, they become cluttered and unfocused.
You can find Mann’s email strategy in the quirky YouTube video above, but we’ve also summarised Mann’s 5 step process for managing your messages.
- Delete (or archive). Read the message and decide whether you need to action it, respond, file it away for future reference or delete it. If you can delete it immediately, then do!
- Delegate. So many emails are irrelevant and can be delegated. If you can delegate, forward on, and delete.
- Respond. Try to keep email responses to the minimum. Nobody wants to wade through a lengthy email, so keep things short and to the point. Use bullet points, bold text, and other ways to highlight important aspects of your messages.
- Defer. If emails need a more considered reply, then file them in a holding folder and give it the time it needs when you can spare it (or use an artificial intelligence assistant like Flowrite to auto-generate these messages, but more about this soon)
- Do. If you can complete a task, respond to a message and get it out of your in-tray in a few minutes, do it immediately.
To put Mann’s principles into practice, you’ll need to develop a system to manage your messages. The first task is to develop a filing structure that enables you to classify, store and access emails rapidly. The specifics will depend on:
- Archive – Where you store old emails you’ve read but want to store. Within this, you can have separate folders for clients, projects, and teams.
- Actioned – These are emails you’ve responded to and actioned. Examples could be project messages with instructions. These relate to live projects and may require rapid access.
- To respond – This is a holding folder for messages that you’ll respond to when you have the time. You should be checking this regularly and respond in a timely manner. Bottom line is: don’t let this inbox get clogged up!
- Auto-file some messages – Let’s say you receive a sales catalog from a client every Friday. Setting up an automatic direct will file this email in a folder without you ever needing to read or action it. You can dip in or delete when you want to. Automating processes for certain emails can reduce inbox overload.
Creating the fling system is a great start, but you’ll need to ensure you follow a process. As you’d expect, Mann has an approach here.
Your email client shouldn’t be open at all times. Instead, you should check in at regular intervals (the top of the hour, for example) and action emails then. Applying this rigorously will break the habit of treating your inbox as a “to-do” list.
Staying on top of your email is an ongoing challenge. While you may never achieve inbox zero (as Mann himself acknowledges) developing a system to manage messages can improve efficiency and reduce anxiety.
When Mann was writing in 2007, email programmes were clunky and ultra-fast broadband a distant dream. Nearly 20 years later, technology can take a lot of the hard work and heavy lifting off your shoulders. Here are three of our favorite inbox zero apps.
3 best inbox zero apps
1. Flowrite for inbox zero
Flowrite is your personal email assistant, that uses AI-powered smart templates to write your emails for you, like this:
Writing repetitive emails has never been faster or easier. All you have to do is pick a template (think of it as the intention of the email, like “Reject offer”), write short instructions and Flowrite finishes the email for you, giving a few alternatives to choose from.
You can either use our web app or browser extension to write messages faster across the web. Flowrite is the ultimate productivity tool to get to inbox zero.
2. Superhuman for inbox zero
Superhuman is an email client designed with productivity in mind: super-fast experience, handy shortcuts, and a minimalist design separate it from the rest.
Here’s three handy shortcuts I enjoy daily:
1. Press ‘G’ to open the “Go to…” menu to switch folders
2. Press ‘J’ (down) and ‘K’ to navigate up/down between items in the inbox, as well as between emails. The speed is too nice.
3. Press ‘Enter’ to open an email and ‘R’ to reply. Hit ‘⌘’ + Shift + ‘,’ to discard draft and ‘Esc’ to close the email’
On top of the keyboard shortcuts, split inbox lets you customize the standard Gmail inbox tabs to suit your needs better. I keep the Inbox and Calendar tabs open at all times (just press ‘Tab’ anytime you want to switch between them).
3. Sanebox for inbox zero
SaneBox is an intelligent email filtering program that helps you to focus on tasks without interruption. The system will automatically send (what it considers to be) unnecessary emails to folders, leaving you to concentrate on tasks.
The idea behind Sanebox is to help you prioritize and categorize your emails with ease. The app is integrated with Gmail, Office 365, and iCloud for seamless service.
Sanebox automatically sends unessential emails to a separate inbox so you can concentrate on the essential info. Examples of these different inboxes include a folder for distractions (SaneLater), a folder for newsletters (SaneNews), and a folder for CC'd emails (SaneCC). There's also a trash folder for pure spam, which learns on the fly which messages should be trashed right away.
The folders have names such as SaneLater (for distractions) SaneCC (for CC'ed emails), and so on. The system will also trash some emails without bothering you.
Sanebox is an intelligent system, but make sure to check whether its getting things right from time to time, or you could miss urgent emails from unexpected places.
Questions & answers
How to get to inbox zero on Gmail
Gmail is the most popular email client (with over 1.5 billion users), thus it’s no wonder that it also stocks the most impressive list of extensions and tools to make email writing faster.
Companies developing email productivity apps and tools simply can’t ignore Gmail due to it’s popularity.
Thus getting to inbox zero with Gmail might be easier than with other email clients, but the strategy is still the same. You can use the tips and principles we outlined above and try Flowrite, Superhuman and Sanebox.
Superhuman and SaneBox work together in a complimentary way, but make sure to take these things into consideration (helpful guide written by SaneBox).
On top of that, you have the full Flowrite integration with Gmail to write emails faster than ever using AI, right in your inbox.
How to get to inbox zero on Outlook
Achieving inbox zero with Outlook is possible with this strategy:
- Use the inbox zero method invented by Merlin Mann we outlined here
- Try the 3 best inbox zero apps we outlined here
Whether you use Outlook, Gmail or another email client, the possible strategies and methods are the same, but available productivity apps might change.
Most products are, however, available for Outlook users, because of it's popularity.
Tell us your best tips and methods, and let us know which apps you end up testing, on Twitter!
Supercharge your communication with Flowrite
Write emails and messages faster across Google Chrome.
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