What about Inbox Zero?

Judith Guertin Posted in Getting Organized

What should I do now?

What about Inbox Zero?

While writing my upcoming book about Gmail, Taming the Digital Tiger, Gmail Edition. A Step -By-Step Guide to Tame Your Gmail Account in No Time Flat, I was asked about Merlin Mann, the Founder of 43 Folders, and his concept known as Inbox Zero. Inbox Zero created a sensation in 2007, when Merlin showcased this concept at Google Tech Talk.

With the Inbox Zero philosophy, you process the email in your inbox using a few actions instead of allowing it to accumulate in the inbox. You read it, assign an action to it, and move it out of the inbox based on that action (more on this in a minute.) All the items in our Inboxes require two things, our time, and our attention.

In 2007, our digital communications were predominantly email based.  For most, it meant the email assigned to us at work. Now, we all have multiple email addresses. In addition, we have apps like Slack, Telegram, Messenger, Signal, and Twitter DM’s. And let’s not forget, text messages and chat tools inside other productivity apps. All this new technology since 2007. We have more choices for communicating and more inboxes than ever. Do you use voice messages or video messages? More inboxes!

Manage your inbox by processing, not checking!

Use these Five Verbs for the actions in your inbox.

1.      Delete (or Archive)

2.      Delegate to someone else

3.      Respond - quick responses–Five Sentences or fewer.

4.      Defer - waiting for a response.

5.      Do or capture a placeholder for it. Put it on your Calendar or in your Task App.

in 2021 the actions to deal with the inflow in each tool are the same. Take the time to PROCESS each inbox. He tells us two things.

  • Stop treating Inbox Zero as a means to an end.
  • Accept That Almost Everything in Your Life Is an Inbox.

Start by locating all the inboxes in your life:

  • Work email
  • Personal email
  • Twitter DMs
  • Messenger
  • Telegram
  • Slack
  • Text messages

Develop a Processing Habit:

Processing, to be clear, is not the same as checking, glancing at, or peeking at your email. Processing is about acting!

Mr. Mann was correct; time and attention are our two most important commodities. Time is finite; you can’t make more time.  Merlin described every item requiring our time and attention as a box that we need to fit into our own box. You cannot get a bigger box. You need to evaluate all the ways you spend your time and attention to make absolutely sure that you are only putting the most important boxes in your box, and they all fit.

  • Schedule time for processing your email. Mann suggests dedicating time three times a day to catch up on your inbox.
  • Filter out the noisy stuff. Unread newsletters, solicitations, ads you do not read.
  • Think in terms of templates! Create templates for typical responses.
  • NO Fiddling! Stop scrolling and peeking!
  • Stay on Target! Your high value work comes first. Decide and move on.
  • Manage Expectations!!! If you leave email open at all times and respond to every ping and notification, you will have a difficult time accomplishing your high value work. Let people know by autoresponder or email signature note the times of day you process email. Meet with your teams and decide which communication tools to use. When do you use email, chat, text, voicemail, video call or something else. Consistency is key. Team members will know where to look, and where to reach out. It does not all belong in email.

My mentor, Barbara Hemphill and I use a system she developed called the FAT System™ to deal with incoming information, whether paper or digital. In this system there are only three actions to take with any file: File, Act, Toss. Barbara has been teaching these principles for over four decades. She reminds us, Clutter is Postponed Decisions®; our ever growing and distressing inboxes are a good example.

Here are the three actions of the FAT System™


  • File - the items you wish to keep (archive or specific folders).
  • Act -the items you need to do something with, reply, delegate, refer to someone else, respond, forward, or any other action you need to perform with that email. 
  • Toss is for the email you need to trash. You no longer need the item for any future purpose. Toss can also mean unsubscribe!

These are just two of many frameworks for processing your email inbox. Whether you use one of these or something else, what is important is to find one that resonates with you. Use it to process your email as it arrives in your inboxes.

Remember, life happens, and it may become unruly from time to time, but you can regain control by returning to your processing system. If you are just getting started, don’t worry about going back to the beginning of time, start with now, start with today! Later, go back and deal with the backlog bit by bit.

Will you ever hit Zero in your inbox? I can't tell you that, but I can tell you that processing your email is one of the keys to productivity success. Feel prepared, stop worrying about what you might forget when it is no longer on the first page of the inbox. Processing and taking action are the tools to get you there.

I will leave you with what Merlin Mann had to say about the concept of Inbox Zero:

“It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life. That “zero?” It’s not how many messages are in your inbox—it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.”

Good luck! If you need help, reach out, I am here to help.