Inbox Zero: Productivity Enhancer or Productivity Killer?

Email. It doesn’t matter if you love it or hate it because most of us can’t live without it. The average email user receives hundreds of emails per day. In fact, how many emails are in your inbox right now? Probably tens or hundreds that you haven’t read—and probably won’t ever read.

By 2018, businesses will send and receive 140 billion emails a day, according to a report by Radicati.

Most of us can only dream of getting caught up on emails, much less getting to inbox zero. If you’re not familiar the term, check out this definition of inbox zero from productivity expert Merlin Mann who coined the phrase:

“It’s about how to reclaim your email, your atten­tion, and your life. That ‘zero?’ It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox—it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.” —Merlin Mann

Mann noticed that when people treat their email inbox as a “to-do” list, then productivity decreases at an alarming rate. His goal was to minimize the amount of time an employee’s brain was in his or her inbox.

Part of Merlin’s inbox zero idea was to close out your email client and only check your email at certain times throughout the day. Maybe you check it the first ten minutes of each hour or maybe you check it every few hours. There’s no set schedule. You can pick whatever intervals you want to use. But when you decide to check your email, there are only five actions you can take.

  1. Delete
  2. Delegate
  3. Respond
  4. Defer
  5. Do

If you can respond to an email, then you must do so quickly (save the epic rants for your personal blog). So now that you know more about the concept, I want to discuss some advantages and disadvantages of using inbox zero to increase your productivity.

Advantages of inbox zero

There are many advantages to the zero inbox system, especially when you adhere to the concept as originally described by Merlyn Mann.

Increased productivity

“A crammed e-mail inbox can be distracting. And constantly checking e-mail is a surefire way to short-circuit both productivity and creativity.” —Bridgid Schulte on The Washington Post

Your time, attention and focus are limited, so with this system you can focus on tasks that matter instead of reacting to your inbox every time you receive an email alert. When you use the 5D system (and you limit how often you check email), your productivity increases dramatically. You simply have more time, energy and focus to spend time on the tasks that matter at work.

Better prioritization

The reality is that you probably don’t get that many emails that truly require an immediate response. Not sure if an email deserves your attention, or if it deserves your attention MORE than something else? Use the Eisenhower Matrix popularized by Stephen Covey.

“What percentage of the emails that you receive throughout the day are actually red-alert important? If you're like me, it's probably a very small percentage.” —Bob Perkins on Small Business Nation

Greater organization

A good system works kind of like how a filing cabinet would work. You “file” each email where it belongs so that you can find the important ones later on or just delete them if they are unnecessary. You can even automate this process so that when you get emails from certain people they automatically route those emails to folders inside your email client. It’s in your best interest to leverage technology whenever you can to help minimize the time you spend in your inbox.

Alyse Kalish has a few suggestions on organizing your inbox in her article on The Muse.

Reduced stress

“The habits we develop, the emotional reactions we have to messages and the unwritten organisational etiquette around email, combine into a toxic source of stress which could be negatively impacting our productivity and wellbeing." —Dr. Richard MacKinnon as quoted by Lucy Clarke Billings in The Telegraph

Once you start feeling in control of your inbox instead of feeling like it’s in control of you, you may be surprised how much better you feel. And since you’ll get more done, you’ll not only feel better for knocking out emails, but for actually handling the tasks and issues that spurred them.

Disadvantages of inbox zero

While many hail inbox zero as the holy grail of office productivity hacks, it can have some disadvantages depending on how you approach it. Most of the difficulties around trying to achieve inbox zero are caused by misunderstanding the aim as trying to hit zero unread emails instead of freeing up brain space to focus on other tasks.

Chewing up valuable time

For example, using the 5D system described earlier in this post means that you have to actually open and read every email in order to make one of the five decisions. I’m not sure how much time you are actually saving if you check every single email—especially if you consider the kinds of junk and automated messages you get that you could have filed automatically. You are letting the senders of those emails control your time while you decide what you do with their email.

Some users get obsessed with inbox zero and want to see it every single day so they waste unnecessary time in their inbox trying to get there.

Plus, constantly going back to email to bump off that one new unread message interrupts your flow and destroys your productivity, as Kermit Pattison notes on Fast Company.

“It takes it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.” —Kermit Pattison on Fast Company


Perceived social pressure may be one of the biggest limitations of going for that zero inbox number, especially when setting up productivity-enhancing boundaries.

“People fear being seen as a slacker if they don’t answer their e-mails right away. They fear letting people down. They’re worried they’re going to miss something or be left out.” —Bridgid Schulte on The Washington Post

Trying to make all the decisions required to get to that magic zero number can also result in decision fatigue.

“It’s a fact that decision fatigue can lead to analysis paralysis and overwhelm our daily lives.” —Lori Rochino in The Huffington Post

You over-focus on the small things

You’ve got five emails. Four of them are quick fixes, but the fifth is a really important item that’s going to take time. If you’re focused on the number of unread emails you have, you may put too much of your focus on quick-fix tasks while ignoring the big, albeit slower work that needs to be addressed.

“If it’s something that can be dealt with quickly, then you get there. So you switch up tasks to get to the things that don’t require as much time or attention so that you can get closer to this stripped down variation of Inbox Zero.” —Mike Vardy on Lifehack

Missing things in the rush

Get too focused on acting fast on your emails can be just as bad as acting too slowly or not acting at all. If you start zooming through your inbox just to hit zero, you can easily start filing and deleting things that actually need your attention.

“On the one hand, it feels great not to linger on past conversations; but on the other hand, I forget whole interactions as soon as they’re gone from my screen.” —Silvia Killingsworth in The New Yorker

Passing the buck

Using the 5D system? Have you delegated 90 percent of the work that’s come your way? Unless your title starts with a “C,” you may have taken the 5D system too far.

Kicking the can down the road

If you reach that magical zero unread emails number by filing things away, but not actually doing something about them, you’ve really just transferred your stress from your computer’s inbox to your mental inbox, as Mike Vardy tells us on Lifehack:

“Unless you’ve actually done something with the stuff, it’s either not worth having in your inbox in the first place or is still sitting in your “mental inbox.” —Mike Vardy on Lifehack

How to get to inbox zero

We’ve already established that inbox zero doesn’t actually refer to getting your inbox to zero new messages—a condition that changes every time a new email comes in. It refers to limiting how much time and brain power you spend on email to take back your time for more productive activities. And fortunately for us, some enterprising folks have devised several strategies for helping you get ever-closer.

On Mashable, Zoe Fox has a five pronged system focused on getting that unread message number down to zero:

  1. Knock out emails during downtime
  2. Create labels or folders in your inbox
  3. Use the archive button
  4. Be cautious about which emails to open
  5. Get some help from an app

Read her entire post on achieving inbox zero here >

Readdle suggests on often heralded approach of limiting how often you check email and for how long.

“Create your own schedule of reading emails. Start with 4-5 reading sessions per day and try to make it 1 or 2. If needed, use some other channels of communication with colleagues for urgent matters: say, chats or messengers.” —Readdle

Readdle also make a finer point not just of how often you check email, but WHEN you check it.

“Don’t check your email during your most productive hours (for someone, it’s early morning), better use this time for something really important.” —Readdle

Bridgid Schulte on The Washington Post suggests that people set up protocols and train people to work within them. Speaking of Terry Monaghan of Time Triage workshops, Bridgid said:

“ ‘The most effective thing I ever did, and now teach my clients, is how to establish protocols for how often I check and how quickly I respond to e-mail,’ she said. She lets people know that she will respond within 24 hours on a business day, and if they need to reach her sooner, they know to call or text.” —Bridgid Schulte on The Washington Post

And of course, you can find the archive of the entire inbox zero series of posts on 43 Folders.

Pro tip: Companies who use real-time team collaboration tools like MiTeam (included with MiCloud Office) often reduce email by up to 40 percent.

What should you do?

Inbox zero is not for everyone. It has advantages and disadvantages, especially depending on how you define it. But you will have to try it to find out what works best for you.

To be perfectly honest I have not implemented the inbox zero system yet. I have over 10,000 emails in my email folder right now that I would have to go back and process and I don’t think it makes sense to do that.

I have turned off my Outlook email notifications and implemented some other tactics so I can minimize email distractions during the day. This has helped me be more productive and focus on important projects.

I’m not sure that spending time filing each email would be a good use of my time but I have noticed that I have started deleting more emails that are not relevant, important or urgent.

You don’t have to implement inbox zero per say but don’t be afraid to try new things. Find a system that works and practice it daily. You won’t believe how much more work you can get done.

Beyond inbox zero?

Of course, you can also take Tomasz Tunguz’s approach, which he calls task list zero, and offers up as the natural successor of inbox zero. Here’s how he describes it:

“Task List zero: getting to the end of the day having completed the three or four most important goals.” —Tomasz Tunguz

Is task list zero the next step? You be the judge.

Learn more about team collaboration tools that can help reduce email by up to 40 percent >

Check out these 4 simple work hacks to increase your daily productivity >

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