Is emptying your email inbox really worth it?

My inbox right now has 22,010 unread emails.

How many do you have?

Developed by Merlin Mann as a system for managing email clutter and distractions, the Inbox Zero philosophy encourages you to strive to clear your email inbox every day (down to zero messages) by either acting, delegating or deleting every email.

It promises mental clarity, focus and better time management.

But the bitter truth is, Inbox Zero is a total waste of your precious time.

Email has changed over the years.

What you need is a better Inbox management habit.

An efficient way to handle emails.

A method of attacking your email as opposed to reaching an end goal.

Productivity isn’t measured by how many emails you answer.

Instead, learn to manage how and where you spend your time.

Striving for Inbox zero daily is wasteful and distracting.

When you start obsessing over the numbers it becomes hard to stop.

Inbox Zero only encourages you to spend more time in your inbox instead of working getting stuff done.

You will never be able to practically maintain an empty inbox unless you route all incoming messages to a folder other than your inbox.

While the act of clearing out an inbox can feel as satisfying as cleaning the refrigerator, it’s ultimately just another way of wasting time, argues Dan Ariely, a psychologist and behavioural economist at Duke University, and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

“How many people are going to die happy knowing they got to email zero?” Ariely asked on the Bloomberg Game Plan podcast.

The business world runs on email.

While communication is great for business, email on its own is merely a tool.

Boomerang, Slack, Trello, Microsoft Teams, and Spark are a few of the relevant tools you can use to manage your communication.

Beyond necessary communication (sending and responding to important emails that advance work), email can be just as much of a distraction as it is a great communication tool.

Learning when it’s productive to pay attention to email and when you should ignore it is a necessary skill.

To tame the chaos, you need an ongoing process for managing incoming emails; prioritising and weighing the value of different messages appropriately and responding to them at the right time without interfering with your workflow.

Understand the psychology of email

Email delivers important news, work and project updates, encouragement and fun notes from friends and family. It also delivers confirmation of purchase and even discounts that may save us money.

But there is a dark side.

The endless spam we try so hard to control. The discussions that go on for far too long. The many newsletters we didn’t sign up for.

Email has become a necessary distraction.

We need it, yet we hate it.

The temptation to check email is understandable.

It’s no wonder many of us develop the habit of checking our email over and over throughout the day.

Most people tend to check their emails every five to 10 minutes.

If you add up all of the minutes that it takes to continually check your inbox and then reply, it’s easy to see why it’s such a time waster.

Some of us even pride ourselves on returning emails within minutes of receiving them.

In her book, Jocelyn applies Newton’s Third Law of Motion to the medium: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Or said differently, the more you send, the more you receive.

The problem is, we spend so much time responding and replying to emails that we end up caught in an endless email loop without getting real work done.

It’s like a time vacuum.

It’s easy to lose track of how much time you spend.

This habit interrupts workflow.

And each interruption forces your brain to switch tasks.

When you keep switching tasks, everything slows down.

It destroys your momentum.

Psychologists and researchers claim our brains need up to 25 minutes to regain our momentum after each distraction.

That’s a lot of time to get back to “flow” mode.

You don’t want that, especially if you have deadlines to meet and deliverables to submit.

Every email you check leaves a mental footprint.

A report from the London-based Future Work Centre, which conducts psychological research on people’s workplace experiences, said emails were a “double-edged sword” that provided a useful means of communication but could also be a source of stress.

Some messages stay in your mind long after you closed your email app.

And they can distract you from focusing on important tasks.

Now, imagine how that effect can hinder your ability to get things done if you consistently check your email several times a day.

Let’s now take a look at several actionable habits you can adopt to break your “email habit.”

Treat emails like appointments with yourself

Check your emails on purpose.

You will be surprised at how much time you can gain if you plan to check your emails instead of reacting to every message.

You probably receive dozens or hundreds of emails everyday. But you don’t have to respond to each one of them as and when they hit your inbox.

Use email when you intend to, not just because it’s always running in the background.

Schedule time to check and respond to them.

Test different times of the morning, afternoon and evening you can use.

Track which times best complement your schedule, energy levels and workflow.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Jocelyn says, “…keep work emails short, simple and if something can’t be resolved quickly on email, suggest a meeting or simply walk to your colleague’s desk to confirm a plan. You’ll be rescuing yourself and others from those annoying email threads that drag on for a whole afternoon, interrupting everyone involved.”

Use the 2-minutes rule when you make time for emails; if it takes less than two minutes, respond instead of marking it as “unread”.

I use the action approach to clear my inbox:

When I open an email, I make a quick decision:

Delete/archive, act now (if it takes a minute or two) and then reply/archive, send a quick reply (and then archive) or add to my to-do list to do later at a specific time.

I keep emails insanely short. Keeping them short means it’s quick to reply.

Cut back on email push notifications

Turn off email notifications.

Yes, you don’t need a grand announcement of a new message whilst you getting real stuff done.

Push notifications are ruining your work life.

You don’t even have to read those messages for your mental gears to toggle off what you are focusing on.

Kill your notifications. Yes, really. Turn them all off.

Smartphones aren’t your problem. It’s all the buzzing and dinging, endlessly calling for your attention.

It’s time to fight email distractions.

Create an uninterrupted, free-flowing, idea-generating, peaceful space to get work done on time.

Pause emails to minimise distractions

“Inbox (1)” can be very distracting!

With every email that comes in, it can be tough to stay focused on what you are doing.

Leverage Inbox Pause.

This allows you to work according to your schedule by holding emails back so they won’t appear in your Inbox until you are ready for them.

“Pause” your inbox, get work done, then “Unpause” to fetch all new messages, respond or act on them, and repeat to get in the “flow” again.

Block off times for deep focus work.

There are extensions that.

“Free Pause Gmail” Chrome extension prevents new emails from showing up in your inbox until you’re ready for them.

Create an email hierarchy

Filters + folders change everything.

You’ve got to use filters and folders, especially if you manage multiple email addresses on one account.

Filters point to folders for better email management.

Don’t everything come into one main inbox folder and see it pile up all day.

Filters are useful for organising incoming emails into folders.

You can set up a filter manually (Settings) or you can build your filters as emails come into your inbox.

You can create filters for both work and personal emails.

You can build a filter based on an email address, or a subject line.

Zach Hanlon, a marketing and sales expert who has worked with IBM, Oracle, and other businesses recommends you create Today, This Week, and This Month/Quarter folders:

Inbox: the inbox is a holding pen. Emails shouldn’t stay here any longer than it takes for you to file them into another folder. The exception to this rule is when you respond immediately and are waiting for an immediate response.

Today: Everything that requires a response today.

This Week: Everything that requires a response before the end of the week.

This Month/Quarter: — Everything that needs a longer-term response. Depending on your role, you many need a monthly folder. Others can operate on a quarterly basis.

FYI: Most items I receive are informational. If I think I may need to reference an email again, I’ll save it to this folder.

Adopt and use a folder structure that works specifically for you. You can always modify what’s not working get better at managing your inbox.

Everyone’s filtering and foldering system is individual and it might take you some time to work out what’s best for you.

Closing thoughts

You don’t have to be stressed by your inbox.

Build better habits instead of aiming for Inbox zero.

An effective approach is to keep things moving.

Break every decision about an e-mail into five possibilities: delete, delegate, respond, defer, do.

If you opt to respond, make sure it’s not distracting you from doing real work.

Changing your mindset about emails can help keep your unread count down.

Now take a deep breath and get things done.

Originally published on

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