Inbox zero: is this the easiest way to manage our work emails?

Posted by for Careers

If you’re struggling to keep up with all of your work emails, look this way…

We are a nation overwhelmed by emails at work. In fact, research has shown that the average office worker apparently receives 121 emails and sends about 40 each day.

Don’t believe me? Well, in the short time it took me to write those two sentences, I received over 15 emails. And, yes, it made me feel more than a little edgy – and, yes, it caused me to flit away from my (mostly blank) Word document to check them all out. Because what if I’d missed something important? Something vital?

Newsflash: I hadn’t. Of the 15 emails I’d received, there was only one that required my immediate attention. Which didn’t seem a fair trade-off for the time it cost me: not only did I spend time going through all my emails, but, when I finally returned to my article, I also had to go over what I’d written and researched in order to remind myself what I was working on.

I’m not the only one who finds email notifications distracting, of course. In fact, research has shown that it can take us upwards of 20 minutes to get back to a task after being interrupted by an email

So what’s the solution? Well, apparently we should all adopt the “inbox zero” philosophy.

Inbox Management
Inbox Management: delete anything you don’t need, plus any responses that just say ‘yes’, ‘thanks’ or ‘sounds great’.

As reported by The Guardian, Graham Alcott – author of How To Be A Productivity Ninja – has suggested that the “inbox zero” policy is the best way to tackle an overflowing email inbox.

Explaining that the “zero” doesn’t refer to keeping your inbox empty at all times, Alcott added that it actually refers to the amount of time an employee’s brain is in his inbox.

“The goal should be managing your attention, not your emails,” he explains. “A key part of an ‘inbox zero’ system is to do whatever it takes to get your attention on to the most important and fulfilling stuff. If that means a few things go awry once in a while, so be it.

“Your job isn’t to do email well, it’s to use email to do your job well.”

Merlin Mann – the founder of 43 Folders, not to mention the person credited with coining the “inbox zero” concept – has some tips and advice on how to achieve this.

Firstly, keep your email program closed for most of the day. Instead of having it on in the background, be sure to only open it at scheduled points throughout the day – when you’re actually ready and in a position to tackle your inbox head-on.

During these 20-30 minute periods, get comfortable with that delete button. In fact, the aim should be to separate all your emails into the following categories: delete, delegate, respond, defer or do.

  • Delete: is the email relevant to you? Does it require any action on your behalf? If the answer is no, then banish it from your inbox, stat.
  • Delegate: are you the best person to handle this request? If the answer is no, forward it on to someone who is (keep yourself CC’d in and add it to a ‘Delegated’ folder, so you can check on it later).
  • Respond: can you answer in two minutes or less? If so, Mann suggests doing so, as part of a rule borrowed from David Allen’s popular “Getting Things Done” (GTD) productivity philosophy.
  • Defer: will it take longer than two minutes? Place in an ‘Action Required’ folder if so, and move on until you’re ready.
  • Do: if you can act on an email’s request within two minutes, do so. 

Of course, while it sounds fun to go on a mass deletion spree, Alcott cautions us not to start the “inbox zero” method before we’ve updated the settings on our email.

“Set your recycling bin not to empty regularly, so that if you accidentally delete things, you can retrieve them easily,” he says.

Fair. And, with that thought in mind, I’m off to close my email program for a few hours. Wish me luck…

Don’t miss out: sign up to the Stylist Daily email for a curated edit of brilliant content every day

Images: Getty

Share this article

Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

Recommended by Kayleigh Dray