Not quite Inbox Zero

checking my e-mail

I’ve had some interesting feedback when it comes to my previous blog post on my approach to Inbox Zero.

So is it really necessary to have an empty inbox when it comes to inbox zero?

No, despite the name, Inbox Zero is not just about having an empty inbox, nor is it about deleting all your e-mail so that your inbox is empty.

For me, the core principle behind Inbox Zero is about “doing” and “processing” your e-mail rather than just “checking” and “reading” your e-mail.

You can see the aim of having an empty inbox as a goal in doing this, not as an end in itself. Its about doing what needs to be done and then moving onto the next thing.

For me this is also about making the time to do the e-mail and where required I will close down Outlook (or whatever e-mail client you are using) and focus on what I need to do, without the potential interruptions of new e-mail.

A secondary aspect is having a better understanding of how e-mail can be used and when it is better not to and use a different tool.

There are lots of examples of this, moving all staff information to a tool like Yammer for example. Or instead of having a conversation through e-mail, picking up the phone or actually visiting the person at their desk or in their office.

One thing people often say to me is that they don’t have time to “visit” these other tools or spaces. It might be because they’re too busy checking their e-mail, however my view is that if they are too busy to read the Yammer feed, then they probably don’t value what is there. Sending it as an e-mail instead (or as well as) is a flawed assumption, because if they aren’t going to read it on Yammer, then why on earth will they take the time to read it as an e-mail – they’re too busy! The assumption that if it is in an e-mail people will read it, is often the rationale behind sending it as an e-mail, but talking with people, the reality is that these e-mails often get ignored or deleted. At least with a Yammer posting it’s still there and can be read later when you do have time. Similar things can be said about tools like Slack.

You aren’t always going to be able to change people’s viewpoints on e-mail, but I certainly recommend modelling the behaviour you want in others yourself. If you aren’t willing to change then how can you expect others to change.

Do you do the Inbox Zero?

Back in 2007 I was listening to a podcast on the TWiT network, MacBreak Weekly, and one of the podcast participants, Merlin Mann, was talking about productivity and mentioned Inbox Zero. Following the links I found the video Merlin was talking about when he talked about Inbox Zero to Google.

I wrote a blog post about this on my e-learning blog. Since then I have often thought about doing Inbox Zero and occasionally I have reached that point of an empty inbox in previous jobs, however usually I would lose the initiative and momentum to maintain Inbox Zero over the longer period.

In my current job, I have managed to reach and importantly maintain Inbox Zero for sometime now. Reflecting on this I realised that part of this is down to following the Inbox Zero process, another aspect is using different tools to reduce the quantity of e-mail in the inbox instead of using e-mail for things which it isn’t designed or suited for.

Inbox Zero is quite simple and easy to remember and follow. The core though is ever check your e-mail, but do your e-mail. What this means is that constantly checking and re-checking e-mail means you aren’t actually doing anything productive, you are spending time reading e-mails more than once.

So rather than check e-mail across the day, decide to spend time on the e-mail and for each e-mail undertake one of the following five actions:

  • Delete or Archive
  • Delegate
  • Respond
  • Defer
  • Do

Here is how I interpret these five actions.

Delete or archive,

With e-mails that fall into this category, rubbish stuff or notifications are immediately deleted. One of the misconceptions about Inbox Zero is that some people think it’s about deleting e-mails and that e-mail history can sometimes be useful. However that is a misconception, as well as deleting unwanted or unneeded emails the other option is once read is to archive the email. So in my inbox I have a whole series of folders which I archive into. This means I never lose an e-mail and all e-mails on specific subjects are grouped together. Occassaionlly I will copy an e-mail into more than one folder if it is appropriate to do so. Every so often I rationalise my folders and move them around or aggregate them.

An example of this is an e-mail about an event that I am not attending or relevant to my work, so it gets deleted.


Whatever the e-mail is asking , then pass whatever action or work needs to be done to someone else or another team. I used this action as a manager a lot, less so now. What it means is to pass the e-mail to someone else, this could be a member of your team, passing it up to your manager or management team, passing onto a different team.

An example of this is when I get a request about being a pilot in a project, I pass the e-mail (forward) to the member of the team who has responsibility for pilots for them to action. I may respond to the original sender to let them know I have done this.


Simply write a reply and respond straight off. It could be a request for information, a request about something you have or haven’t done. The key here is not to procrastinate and think too long about this, or leave it, just do it, respond and get it done. I then usually archive the email to a folder. One useful thing to do is to create templates for stock answers and informations, so that you can respond more quickly.


Sometimes you can’t do something until something else has happened, or you need a response from someone else. Sometimes you need to defer as the request or task is too big 90% of the time I defer by creating a relevant task in my task management software (JIRA). Deferring should be seen as a last resort, otherwise you find your inbox will start to fill up again. If you really don’t have time to do stuff, then you should really stop “checking” your e-mail as you certainly don’t have time to do that!


Just do it, go on do it, don’t wait, don’t defer, just do it and get it done. So asked to tweet something, tweet it, fill in a form, fill it in. Someone wants some text in a blog post, write the text. Someone wants a meeting, organise it. This is the powerful aspect of “doing” your e-mail rather than just “checking” it. Checking means looking, thinking I need to do that, but I don’t have time to do that. If you really don’t have time to do stuff, then you should really stop “checking” your e-mail as you certainly don’t have time to do that! Making time for e-mail means making time to get things done. One of the key messages form the video, is don’t check your e-mail, deal with your e-mail. So unless I have actual time to do stuff, I don’t check my e-mail.

Wasting time

I know that a lot of people “check” e-mail in their “dead” time, whilst waiting for a train, on the train, waiting for a meeting to start. I think this is wasting that time. It might be better to deal with a single e-mail then just going through the whole list and doing noting about them. I also think on those dead times, why not make better and more productive use of that time, listen to a podcast for example, or read a journal article instead of glancing through your list of e-mails.


I think another factor that impacts on checking over doing, is that checking means going through all the e-mails and then deciding which ones to deal with. Often you will choose the ones that you want to deal with rather than the important or urgent emails. Using an Inbox Zero approach you deal with ALL the email you don’t pick and choose. You can use rules to flag emails and these can be dealt with first, or you can just go through them in the order they arrived.

Other tools

I find it interesting how often we default to e-mail as the main communication tool, to the point where it replaces other forms of communication or discussion. People also often use e-mail for various activities that really e-mail wasn’t designed for. So the other thing I am doing is trying to move the majority of my e-mail conversations to tools such as Slack, Confluence or Skype for Business. I find myself engaging less with email as we start to use a more diverse set of tools. A lot of internal conversations and other things people use to use e-mail for, have moved to these new tools. To a lesser extent, the same has happened for some external conversations. For many of these external conversations, Twitter and Google+ seem to have replaced some e-mail discussions and conversations. The same for other kinds of activities, such as task management and auditing. Need an update on work done so far, go to Confluence (a wiki) to have a look for example. Often people say they don’t have the time for other tools, probably because they have too much e-mail, however using other tools can be more efficient and more effective. Just think about a tool like Doodle for planning and scheduling meetings? So using the right tools in the right way means a lot less e-mail as a result. Yes you need to check those other places, but the end result is more effective and often more efficient.

So I never “check” my e-mail I always (try) to DO my e-mail.

What do you do?