Everything you need to know about the Inbox Zero Method
Everything you need to know about the Inbox Zero Method

Thousands of unread emails. Distracting notifications all day long. Communication slipping through the cracks.

Many of us have an inbox that looks just 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.

As email became ubiquitous, so did methods for taming its impact. And one β€” Inbox Zero β€” 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 β€” all while turning email from a stressful experience into a rewarding, delightful one.

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Curious about Inbox Zero, its origins and 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 β€” or as close to empty as possible β€” at all times.

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

The "Inbox Zero Method" refers to different strategies people can use to achieve and maintain Inbox Zero. These are often techniques that help users triage their email inbox to hit zero (or close to it) 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?

Mann is a productivity expert who first mentioned Inbox Zero on his website, 43 Folders, around 2004. In a series of articles, he called Inbox Zero "action-based email".

"Clearly, the problem of email overload is taking a toll on all our time, productivity, and sanity, mainly because most of us lack a cohesive system for processing our messages and converting them into appropriate actions as quickly as possible," Mann wrote.

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 just the beginning; from there, the concept of Inbox Zero took off.

Mann has since written an entire book about Inbox Zero. Other productivity experts have followed suit with their own books. Today, Inbox Zero is a well-known concept β€” particularly in tech and entrepreneurial circles β€” that continues to spread and gain in popularity. There are many resources that offer methods people can use to achieve Inbox Zero, from blogs and books to workflows, templates, and subscriptions.

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Why is Inbox Zero worth pursuing?

Achieving Inbox Zero can impact more than just your inbox.

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

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 nearly 10% lower on average. Distractions not only made the students able to complete less work, but significantly reduced the quality of that work.

This study makes clear the benefits of avoiding distractions at work. But how distracting is email, really?

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

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 volume of email they receive! And yet, the work-from-home landscape makes communication technology more vital than ever before.

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 Inbox Zero for everyone?

The research makes it clear: email can be distracting, and reducing distractions immensely benefits our productivity. 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 β€” 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. Ideally, you will only ever touch an email once. The end result isn't aimed to improve reading speed or reduce the number of emails; it's about communicating even more effectively via email, but in less time.

With that goal in mind, yes β€” 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 implement your own Inbox Zero Method: step by step

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

  1. Unsubscribe to any marketing emails or newsletters you don't read.

  2. Designate specific times for checking your email and clearing your inbox β€” ideally, once in the morning and once in the evening.

  3. Change your email notification settings to eliminate the time-consuming distraction that comes with 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 very quickly (ideally in 3 sentences)? If the answer to all those questions is yes, respond 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 β€” 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 recognize the importance of Inbox Zero have created other methods.

One extremely popular method involves using your email client's own settings to create filters or folders. Those can then be used to sort different types of emails, clearing the inbox quickly before turning to any important tasks related to the emails. In one example of this method, 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 back 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 β€” it's the result. It's the end of email procrastination. Improved time management. The freedom for deep work without distractions. Never missing an important email because of a cluttered inbox β€” ever again.

Superhuman brings joy to Inbox Zero

Reaching Inbox Zero can look a little different for everyone, depending on their inbox 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 β€” 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 (that is, our carefully curated Inbox Zero images)!

And we recognize 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 β€” and help you reach top speed with Superhuman. We customize the entire experience to you and your inbox, taking you from inbox stress to Inbox Zero in as little as 30 minutes.

Are you ready to remove email distractions from your work life? To get through your inbox in half the time? To finally reach β€” and stay at β€” Inbox Zero? Join Superhuman.