What is Inbox Zero? (And why you absolutely shouldn’t do it)

Inbox Zero
Look into my eyes... Inbox Zero is all a dream...

If you’re a loyal PC Pro reader, you may be familiar with my relationship with email and my experiments with Inbox Zero* and Getting Things Done. Well, like a reformed smoker, allow me to say: don’t do it.

Let’s get the definition out of the way first. Inbox Zero is an aim to empty your inbox every time you go in.

Think of it as a physical inbox that’s supported by a bottomless filing cabinet where you file things. Does it require a response? File it into your “requires response” subfolder, labelled @Action perhaps. Want to read it later? File it into @ReadLater. Want to archive it? You guessed, @Archive is your friend.

Just like its sister scheme Getting Things Done – a whole theory and indeed movement created by David Allen – if you can deal with something instantly then you’re meant to do it there and then. Does the email need to be forwarded to someone else? Then do so, then delete it. Does it need an action that will take less than two minutes? Then get it over with now.

As it happens, the two-minute rule is one I still follow, and the reason is simple: it means I don’t need to waste time going back to an email later, where the 30-second re-reading of the email takes almost as long as replying to it. It also means I look crazy efficient.

The final thing to say about Inbox Zero is that you’re not meant to have Outlook or its equivalent open constantly, waiting for you to pounce on emails as they arrive. The idea is to push email back to its rightful place in your attention pecking order: you’ll get around to it when you’re good and ready, thank you very much.

Instead, you may set specific times such as 9am, 11am, 2pm and 4pm when you check emails. (Some articles, hilariously, suggests you turn on an out-of-office that explains you only check email at set times and to get in touch via other means if urgent. In no way does that make you sound like a [insert your own choice of word here].)

Why you absolutely, totally, 100% shouldn’t do Inbox Zero

So, you may be thinking – “Hmm, this Inbox Zero sounds good and could be the answer to my organisational prayers! It will make me super efficient and get me promoted!”

If that echoes your thinking then I’ve got terrible news: the only people who can make Inbox Zero work are the people who are super efficient already. Okay, let me pull back on that slightly. There may be, say, one in ten people who can use this system to turn themselves into super-efficient beings, but I haven’t met one yet.

What actually happens is that you turn into an Inbox Zero junkie. Rather than freeing you from thoughts about email, it makes you think about Inbox Zero all the time – and, Heaven forbid, if you allow the emails in your inbox to build up to 15, 50, 100, then you chastise yourself.

Nobody’s mission in life is to have a clean inbox; no-one used their dying breath to say “Darling, I love you. I’m so proud of you, the children, but most of all I’m glad I reached Inbox Zero.”

There are practical problems, too. If you file away emails, even if you’re religious about putting them into @Archive after they’re processed, then you can’t do that handy thing (in Outlook, say) where you know that email came from George about a month ago, so you sort by his name and run your eyes down the list of potentials.

“Ah.” you might say, “but I can search.” Yes, you can, but searching has two major flaws: first, you have to rely on an index that isn’t always 100% accurate; second, search tends to bring a horde or other irrelevant emails as well.

Still think Inbox Zero could be The Answer? Then try it. Chances are that you’ll keep it going for a day, maybe even a week. But a month? A year? More likely that Leicester will win the Premier League again.

If you do manage it, feel free to write a comment below. Just don’t email me, because I’m way too busy experimenting with other productivity tips to reply.

* It should be said that Inbox Zero has taken on a separate meaning from that devised by its original inventor, productivity guru Merlin Mann. He described it thus: “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.” Which I totally agree with… it’s just unfortunate that Inbox Zero has effectively turned into the opposite.

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About the author

Tim Danton

Tim Danton is editor-in-chief of PC Pro magazine and has written about technology since 1999. He enjoys playing with gadgets, playing with words and playing tennis. Email

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  • I agree with the original definition. I sometimes have no e-mail, and sometimes I have e-mail I will want to act upon, just not today. The key for me is getting rid of the clutter asking me to buy a randomly coloured toaster that I may have liked 5 years ago*. So the target is not no e-mail, but no clutter.

    *It was a nice aquamarine colour.