Cobalt-60 The Cobalt Blog

The Zen of Zero: The Pluses and Minuses of Inbox Zero

By Madeline Hall

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Just as pen pals, coupons and invitations (oh my!) have been replaced by e-pals, email subscription lists and evites (oh my…), mailboxes have been replaced by inboxes. While the differences in these forms of communication may appear miniscule and rather harmless, you actually receive the same amount of mail (or more) in your inbox every hour as you would receive in your “traditional” mailbox over the course of a week. In fact, Radicat’s Email Statistics Report projects that people across the globe will send and receive more than 333 billion emails a day by 2021. As of 2018 alone, individuals around the globe were sending/receiving on average 140 emails per day, and a Tech Talk Survey found that 81% of U.S. employees check their work-mail outside of work hours.

The “Mann,” The Myth, The Legend


With the numbers of email users and emails being sent daily expected to continue to grow for the foreseeable future, productivity experts everywhere are searching for innovative approaches to manage email accounts without allowing for inbox organization itself to take root as an increasingly time-consuming process. One of the more famous productivity experts is Merlin Mann, founder and writer of the blog “43 Folders.” Mann’s blog focuses on “finding the time and attention to do your best creative work,” and in line with his blog’s focus stems his email management approach, known to most by the name Inbox Zero.

How to Inbox Zero


If you’re not familiar with the work of productivity experts, you are probably asking yourself, “What the heck is Inbox Zero?” (as I asked my boss a few short days ago). Inbox Zero is an approach to email management aimed at keeping your inbox empty or close to empty virtually 24/7. Mann proposes reaching Inbox Zero by considering five potential actions for each message you receive:

  1. Delete
  2. Delegate
  3. Respond
  4. Defer
  5. Do

The Inbox Zero technique recommends first deleting or archiving any messages that do not require an immediate response. Mann then suggests you delegate/forward emails that demand a colleague’s attention for the best response. At this point, reply to any messages you can answer in under two minutes, and move messages that require a greater amount of attentiveness to a “Requires Response” folder. Mann proposes answering the lengthier messages at a time set aside for this exact purpose.

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Zero = Productive, Not Empty


Mann is not suggesting organizing your mail into hundreds of folders, nor is he suggesting immediate responses to emails. Mann is merely suggesting that Inbox Zero will allow you more time to be productive during the workday. However, the debate between Inbox Zero and the Infinite Inbox has blown up in some circles to the same degree as the universal Coke vs. Pepsi or pancakes vs. waffles debates, mainly due to misunderstanding what the zero in Inbox Zero is referencing.

Yes, a large portion of the Inbox Zero email management approach is focused on keeping your email inbox close to empty. Be that as it may, the zero in its name is deceiving because the real meaning behind Inbox Zero is not an empty inbox but instead represents an employee’s brain spending “zero” percent of the workday focused on his/her email.

The Supporters


Since Inbox Zero’s inception, productivity experts everywhere have placed their own spin on the email management technique. For example, Flow-e adds two more steps to Mann’s five actions, stressing the importance of setting aside time to look over email during the day (Step 6 being “Schedule”) as well as scheduling calendar reminders to review any emails that need to be answered at a later time (Step 7 being “Calendar”).

Additionally, productivity experts point out that the “type” of emailer you are will affect the approach you should take to Inbox Zero. While a case is made that any individual can find success in the Inbox Zero approach, the means to produce this result vary greatly between “the everyday emailer,” “the traveler,” “the executive,” and “the entrepreneur.” Luckily, Inbox Zero is flexible and can be adapted to your individual email needs.

The Contenders


Geoffrey James of Inc.com, however, does not find the Inbox Zero technique worthwhile. In James’ words, he spends his “valuable time doing what’s important rather than trying to achieve some weird obsessive-compulsive standard of inbox perfection.”

Instead, James argues in favor of Steven Covey and Tony Robbins’ time management approach: “Do the important stuff first.” (James considers Inbox Zero a time management approach that preaches “Do everything on your to-do list” as opposed to “Do the important stuff first.”) Covey says that you can manage your time effectively by separating your work tasks into four categories, often thought of as the Eisenhower Box, an idea previously explored by Cobalt:

  1. Important and urgent
  2. Important but not urgent
  3. Unimportant and urgent
  4. Unimportant and non-urgent

Robbins refocuses Covey’s categorization on the second grouping’s activities, “important but not urgent,” because he believes these tasks usually offer the highest return on investment. However, it is clear from James’ argument that his knowledge on Inbox Zero remains fairly surface level … He writes, “In other words, ‘zero inbox’ puts your valuable time and mental energy at the mercy of every idiot who sends you an email.” With the correct terminology being ‘Inbox Zero’ rather than ‘Zero Inbox’ and the focus of Inbox Zero specifically being to limit time spent in your inbox, misunderstanding the goal of Mann’s email management approach functions as the clearest explanation for James’ negative feelings regarding Inbox Zero.

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Changing the Course of the Future!


As if you needed further convincing that Inbox Zero is indeed the cure, a recent study found that when an individual’s email use was limited/restricted, participants experienced lower levels of stress than when their email usage was unrestricted. In fact, restricted individuals spent 20% less time within their inboxes, on average, than unrestricted individuals, increasing their productivity. Bloggers and professionals everywhere appear to despise Inbox Zero because of its role in increasing email inbox obsession, but truthfully, implementation of Inbox Zero limits the time you spend in your inbox, decreasing stress and increasing productivity.

So go free up your inbox and in turn free up your mind to the limitless possibilities that await you and your increased amount of creative space and productive time. Unsubscribe relentlessly. Don’t be afraid to delete. Manage email responses efficiently and effectively. Yes, you ARE more than your email inbox.