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Inbox Zero

The “Boiling It Down” posts are a series of executive summaries of popular ideas in strategy. Their objective is to briefly introduce you to the concept and provide you authoritative resources to read further.

Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero philosophy is great and why can best be summed up when he says, “It feels great to suck less.”  Think about all of those old email messages that you never dealt with; you will eventually delete them, but until you do they really weigh you down. Waiting longer makes the problem even worse because

Step 1: Create a DMZ [link]

Put every message that you received before today into a DMZ (demilitarized zone) folder. Don’t argue, just do it. You can’t

Step 2: Classify new incoming mail

The following classification are what Merlin recommends, and I have found quite useful in practice:

  • Act – These are items that require you to act. If it will only take a minute or so, you should do them right now! You should have dealt with all of the messages in this category by the end of the day.
  • Respond – These are items that will take 5 minutes or less to respond to. You should have dealt with all of these messages by the end of the day.
  • Hold – These are items that require your attention, but will take some time to complete.. Do not abuse this tag!
  • Waiting – These are items that I am waiting on a response for. If it does not matter if the other person responds or not, just delete the email and do not classify as waiting.
  • Archive – Completed items that you need to retain. For example they include important attachments that you need to refer to later. Do not archive when you can delete.

Note: it is not necessary to classify messages in your DMZ. You will either respond, archive or delete them in an independent process (see Step 4).

Step 3: Schedule email dashes [link]

Do not sit in your inbox all day and do not use your inbox as a to-do list. Closing your email application will free up your attention to focus on substantive work. The following timings are suggested by Merlin, but not required. The important thing is that you do close your email to focus on real work, and don’t get bogged down with less important

  1. New email check + scanning + super-fast responses: 2 minutes every 20 minutes
  2. Non-critical responses: 10 minutes or 5 emails every 90 minutes
  3. Processing “the pile”: 2 minutes every hour + 15 minutes at the end of the day
  4. Metawork: 15 minutes twice a week
  5. Further culling, responding, and clearing “the pile”: Through the day, as available, in 5-8 minute dashes

Step 4: Work down your Email DMZ.

It took me about two weeks worth of free time in the evenings to clear out my 8,000 email messages across four accounts. I did not declare “email bankruptcy”, but I did delete most of the messages in the DMZ.

Good Inbox Zero Links:

Merlin Mann’s Tech Talk at Google – In terms of researching this topic, this is one of the best 60 minutes you can spend

The Official Inbox Zero page on 43Folders

Writing Sensible Email Messages

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Category: Lifestyle Design

About the Author: Hello, I'm Will Dearman. I'm a data-focused consultant, aspiring strategist, and dad. I love experiments, big data, bigger ideas, adventures, and solving problems. I'm an INTJ. Find me on Twitter or Google+ If you liked this post, please subscribe to this blog.

Comments (3)

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  1. Jason says:

    In step 2, how are those categorizations made? Are they mental? Do I create a file for each an place each new email in it as they come in? Something else?

    By the way, nice to see that you read the blog!

    • Will Dearman says:

      Hi Jason! Thanks for reading.

      The idea is that you create a tag or folder for each and deal with them immediately while you are batching. So lets say I check my email in the morning and get ten email messages. 2 messages are automated banking alerts, 3 are emails from friends about the coming weekend, 1 is about a business opportunity that you want to look into, 2 are messages I sent yesterday that carbon copied myself on to follow up, and 2 are spam messages.

      I would first file the two banking alerts in “Act”, the three friend emails in “Respond”, the job opportunity in “Hold”, the CC emails in “Follow Up”, and I would delete the spam messages. Upon completing that, I would immediately deal with the items in “Act” — checking balances and paying bills, which will take me less than 5 minutes. I would then close my email and go back to work. Some time later in the day, I would dedicate some time time specifically to focus on “Hold” and “Respond”.

      I have deviated from this plan some in practice, but the general goal holds true: don't let the trivial email fill up your most productive hours. Save your most productive hours for the important things.

      Hope this helps!

  2. Will Dearman says:

    Hi Jason! Thanks for reading.

    The idea is that you create a tag or folder for each and deal with them immediately while you are batching. So lets say I check my email in the morning and get ten email messages. 2 messages are automated banking alerts, 3 are emails from friends about the coming weekend, 1 is about a business opportunity that you want to look into, 2 are messages I sent yesterday that carbon copied myself on to follow up, and 2 are spam messages.

    I would first file the two banking alerts in “Act”, the three friend emails in “Respond”, the job opportunity in “Hold”, the CC emails in “Follow Up”, and I would delete the spam messages. Upon completing that, I would immediately deal with the items in “Act” — checking balances and paying bills, which will take me less than 5 minutes. I would then close my email and go back to work. Some time later in the day, I would dedicate some time time specifically to focus on “Hold” and “Respond”.

    I have deviated from this plan some in practice, but the general goal holds true: don't let the trivial email fill up your most productive hours. Save your most productive hours for the important things.

    Hope this helps!