Inbox Zero Method: The Definitive Guide to Inbox Zero
Inbox Zero Method: The Definitive Guide to Inbox Zero

An overflowing inbox. Distracting notifications all day long. Important emails slipping through the cracks.

Many of us have an inbox that looks like that. It's stressful. It's disorganized. And it may be holding us back, letting our team down, and causing us to miss both communication and opportunities.

What’s worse, we now have many inboxes. Email, Slack, Social media, Whatsapp chats, etc. All buzzing with notifications. All begging for our attention.

As email became ubiquitous, so did methods for taming its impact. And one — Inbox Zero — has become something of a buzzword among entrepreneurs and those in the tech industry.

But Inbox Zero is more than a trend. As they achieve it, more and more people are recognizing Inbox Zero for how it can help them get organized, reduce distractions, and stay on top of their email communication — all while turning email from a stressful experience into a rewarding, delightful one.

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Curious about Inbox Zero, its origins, benefits, and how to achieve it? Read on…

What is the Inbox Zero Method?

Inbox Zero is an approach to email management that aims to keep the inbox empty — or as close to empty as possible — at all times.

The "Zero" in "Inbox Zero" doesn't refer to the number of emails in your inbox. It refers to "the amount of time an employee's brain is in his inbox," according to Inbox Zero creator, Merlin Mann.

The "Inbox Zero Method" refers to different strategies people can use to achieve Inbox Zero. These techniques help users triage their email inbox to reduce clutter and hit zero every day.

Mann created the first Inbox Zero approach, but today, there are many tools and processes for maintaining an empty inbox.

Where did the Inbox Zero Method come from?

Productivity expert Merlin Mann first mentioned Inbox Zero on his blog 43 Folders. In a series of articles, he called Inbox Zero "action-based email".

Here's what he said:

The problem of email overload is taking a toll on all our time, productivity, and sanity. Because most of us lack a cohesive system for processing our email and converting them into next steps.

In 2007, Mann gave a Google Tech Talk about Inbox Zero:

"This has a lot to do with my own struggles over the years to deal with high volumes of email," he told a packed crowd of attendees. Mann's talk was the beginning; from there, the concept of Inbox Zero took off.

Mann has since written an entire book about Inbox Zero. Other productivity experts followed suit with their own books. Today, Inbox Zero is widely known, particularly in tech and entrepreneurial circles. And continues to spread and gain in popularity.

There are many resources that people can use to achieve Inbox Zero. From blogs and books to workflows, templates, and subscriptions.

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Why is Zero Inbox worth pursuing?

Achieving Inbox Zero can impact more than your inbox.

Consider this: a study from psychologists at George Mason University showed that even the smallest distractions can derail productivity.

Inbox Zero

In the study, students were asked to write an essay based on a prompt. At random intervals, the students were interrupted with small tasks like solving a math problem or unscrambling a word. Afterward, the students wrote another essay on a different topic, but with no distractions.

A whopping 94% of the students wrote fewer words when distracted. The quality scores of their essays, as assessed by 2 trained graders, were ~10% lower on average. Distractions not only made the students able to complete less work, but significantly reduced the quality of work.

This study makes clear the benefits of avoiding distractions at work. But how distracting can email be?

Let's back up a little. In March 2020, when the pandemic was just beginning, millions of office workers went home from work one day — and stayed there.

Many of us thought our home environments — kids, pets, the fridge always being just a room away — would be our biggest distractors. But a recent study we conducted showed that work communications are the most common distractions for remote workers.

Overflowing Inbox

A major component of this common distractor? Email.

The same study showed that 22% of remote workers want to leave their job because of the inability to handle large volumes of email! And yet, the work-from-home  landscape makes effective communication more vital than ever.

It starts to feel like a Catch-22. Distributed teams rely on email to keep everyone up to speed. But the more emails we send and receive, the more distracted we become!

Is the Inbox Zero Method for Me?

The research makes it clear: Email is distracting. Reducing these distractions can help us focus on important tasks. Just about any kind of worker can benefit from better email management.

But Inbox Zero has its skeptics. There are many who think it's overhyped — another productivity fad in a work landscape that can be, well, pretty obsessed with productivity fads!

But the real beauty of Inbox Zero comes when you understand what it really means. It's not purely about the qualitative goal: zero emails. It's also about reframing the way you think about email. It's about teaching yourself to make active and efficient decisions about incoming messages as they arrive: triaging, replying, snoozing, or archiving.

In other words: Making a habit to touch every email once.

The end result isn't aimed to improve reading speed or reduce the number of emails; it's about communicating effectively via email, in less time.
With that goal in mind, yes — Inbox Zero can be for everyone. There are a lot of different ways to achieve it, but let's look at a few of the most popular frameworks and email clients.

How to Inbox Zero: Email Management Tips

No matter what method you use, there are a few tenets that Inbox Zero proponents swear by:

  1. Unsubscribe from marketing emails, junk mail or newsletters you don't read.
  2. Check unread emails in batches. Schedule time once in the morning and evening to check your inbox.
  3. Turn off email notifications to eliminate the time-consuming distraction from being notified of new emails throughout the day.

When Merlin Mann created the Inbox Zero Method, one of his biggest goals was to stop using email as a to-do list. To do this, he identified 4 possible actions he could take for each incoming email: delete, delegate, do, or defer.

Merlin Mann Inbox Zero
  • Delete: Does this email require action from you? Does it contain any information you might need to refer back to? If the answer to both those questions is no, you can delete or archive the email right away. This applies especially to spam and email promotions.
  • Delegate: Are you the correct person to address the ask in this email? Could someone else on your team respond more effectively than you? If yes, you can delegate by forwarding the email to the correct person. Then, archive or delete.
  • Do: Does this email require action from you? Are you the correct person to respond to it? Can you respond  quickly (ideally in 3 sentences)? If the answer to all those questions is yes, reply to the email, then archive or delete it, and move on to the next message in your inbox.
  • Defer: Will you need more time to respond to this email — either because you need to follow up on a different day, type a longer response, or find files to attach? Does it contain information you may need to refer back to later? If the answer to either of those questions is yes, sort this email into a separate folder, snooze it, or label it so you can come back to it later, after all your other emails have been touched. Tip: manually filing emails wastes time, so use Superhuman's automatic triage instead!

That's the basic framework that Mann described using to achieve Inbox Zero for himself. But in the more than 10 years since he introduced the concept, others who recognise the importance of Inbox Zero have created other methods.

One popular method involves using your email client settings to create filters or folders. Those can be used to sort emails into different categories, clearing the inbox quickly before tending to urgent emails.

In one example, YouTuber Jeff Su creates three Gmail folders in his Gmail mail client: Follow Up, Waiting, and Read Through.

By enabling Gmail's built-in keyboard shortcuts, Su is then able to move chronologically through his inbox, starting with new messages and quickly using shortcuts to sort his work emails into the folders he created:

  • Follow Up: Emails he needs to take action on. For example, an email from his boss asking him a direct question.
  • Waiting: Emails that require action from another person, but that he is still responsible for. For example, an email about a report that Su is writing, but that requires information from another colleague first.Read Through: Emails Su might want to refer to later. For example, an industry report with information he may be able to use for future job tasks.

What's important about Inbox Zero isn't the method used to achieve it — it's the result. End of email anxiety. Better time management. The freedom for deep work without distractions. Never missing an urgent email because of a cluttered inbox. Ever again.

Superhuman = a Clean Inbox 🤩

Hitting Inbox Zero can look different for everyone, depending on their inbox setup and unique workflows. Enter Superhuman.

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At Superhuman, we're building the fastest email experience in the world. Our customers consistently achieve Inbox Zero — and get through their inbox twice as fast as before.

We've not only adopted Merlin Mann's framework, but built upon it. With Superhuman, you can transform Inbox Zero from a quantitative goal (zero emails) into a qualitative one, with ever-changing rewards (ie our carefully curated Inbox Zero images!)

We recognise that the Inbox Zero Method that works best for one person might not work best for another. That's why every Superhuman customer begins with an onboarding call where we listen to your needs and goals — to help you make the most out of Superhuman. We customize the entire experience for you, so you can go from inbox stress to Inbox Zero in ~30 minutes.

Ready to finally end email overload? To get through your inbox twice as fast? To finally reach and stay at Inbox Zero? Join Superhuman.

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