This is a productivity technique many people don’t like or don’t agree with. It feels “too much”. But those that do adopt it and like it, tend to stick with it. I’ll leave that decision up to you. But like any tip or suggestion, I certainly think it’s worth a try before coming to a decision.
I first came across this many years ago with David Allen’s excellent book, Getting Things Done. Allen is one of those figures that people either disagree with completely or see as a guru of sorts. Mainly because rather than just giving a couple of principles for productivity, he really goes all in on a total philosophy, which means that some people might feel overwhelmed. But he’s a best selling author and has worked with many of the top companies in the world so clearly there’s a lot of value in his ideas, even if you don’t want to incorporate them. The e-mail inbox at zero tip is the one that I think pays the most dividends. I started doing it years ago after I first read his book. By no means am I “super productive” or anything like that but I tested it and saw clear benefits. In my opinion it makes managing my e-mail much easier.
So in effect you treat your e-mail inbox a bit like a letter in-tray. It’s simply there as a holding area before being processed. So you have four options when it comes to a new e-mail
1.) Put it in a “to do/action” folder if it requires further action but you won’t do it right now.
2.) Do it now. If it’s something that can be done quickly or you have time now – then just process it. You can then file it or delete it depending on if you need the audit trail or not.
3.) Delete it if you don’t need to do anything with it or file it for reference. Why keep it cluttering up your e-mail?
4.) File it in a reference folder if it’s something you don’t need to action but may need to look at later for reference.
By incorporating the above actions you’ll keep your inbox at zero which makes it much easier to see anything new that comes into your inbox, but seeing “5 unread” feels much more relaxing than “1023 unread.” The above takes a bit of work – sure – but probably less than searching for an e-mail weeks or months down the line in an inbox filled with unread e-mails. I certainly find it’s more difficult to miss things when you have less in the pot to begin with, so to speak. But to make this work you need to be consistent. You can’t do it every now and again or you’re missing the benefits and will have to spend longer processing more e-mails. Doing it as you go certainly gives you a sense of satisfaction that you’re making progress and getting organised. That little bit of motivation or sense of accomplishment is a big factor in keeping you motivated when you’ve got a lot to do. By doing this your inbox itself might be a little bit less intimidating with smaller numbers to process.
The downside is the requirement to be consistent and it might not work so well for people that get a silly amount of e-mails or are in large e-mail groups such as large project teams where info may be flying back and forth. There’s also a trend now to use messaging systems such as Teams, Zoom, Slack etc which may make the reference folders a bit hit and miss in the sense that you may be missing some information with it being spread out over different programs/systems. Some people don’t like the need to constantly be processing e-mails as they may prefer to just check e-mails in blocks that could make this more difficult to adopt.
I certainly think it’s worth a try. I’ve personally found this system to be extremely beneficial for myself. But I think productivity systems and tools work best when it’s something you find useful to your own personal preferences and style. So have a try. If you think it works then keep going. If it’s not for you then look for something else. If you want more information – check out Getting Things Done by David Allen. Even if you don’t adopt his system it will definitely get you thinking differently about productivity.