What does a zero inbox really mean?

A customer once said to me receiving email in business is like death and taxes – it’s coming your way no matter what you do.

While most jobs are measured on output, we process emails for greater than 25% of our working week (McKinsey study 2012) when it’s just a tool to do our job rather than actually being our job.

Added to this is research published by the University of Southern California in April 2015 after studying the emailing habits of 2 million people who sent and received 16 billion emails over several months. Not unexpectedly a key finding was “many of today’s knowledge workers deal with what’s called “email overload,” i.e., the perception that they send, receive and process more emails than they can handle on a daily basis.”

This isn’t another Blog with good email management tips (I’m sure you’ve seen enough of those) it’s about adding some clarity to the simpler question of what does a zero inbox really mean?    

Managing the inbox

There are 2 schools of thought as to managing the inbox 

  1. Empty inbox – emails are filed in folders
  2. Crowded inbox – there are no folders, all emails reside in the inbox

There are Pros and Cons for both approaches (the non-filing crew argue they don’t have time to file emails while the filing crew argue they feel overwhelmed with a crowded inbox and it takes too long to search emails without categorisation) 

An empty inbox can also be relative to the number of emails received per day ie. empty when receiving 20 a day might be 1 or 2 emails whereas empty when receiving 120 a day might be 20.

I have tried both approaches and I have to admit that my personal preference is the empty inbox principle. However, I have also seen people who have previously tried and not resonated with an empty inbox but feel more at home with a crowded inbox. In fact they are so opposed to empty that it is counter-productive for them to consider anything else.

Therefore I believe in going with what works effectively for your personal working style.

Zero Inbox

Merlin Mann (who likes to be referred to as a writer but seems more like a jack of all trades) has a great definition of a zero inbox:

“it’s not an empty inbox but the amount of time an employee’s brain is in the inbox as time and attention are finite so productivity suffers when an inbox is confused with a To Do list.”

I think this is the more pertinent point - whether your preference is for an empty or a crowded inbox, it’s not a To Do list as the Calendar, Task or a To Do are the appropriate tools to manage actions.

Use the approach which best works supporting you to do your job so that you’re not focussing on the inbox nor are you feeling overwhelmed with emails. If neither is the case then maybe it’s time to review your email management techniques.