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Published March 1, 2020 Updated September 30, 2021
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Inbox Zero

We are what we frequently do — Aristotle

Merlin Mann coined the term, Inbox Zero, as early as 2006 and spent years discussing the concept on several podcasts — namely This Week in Tech — in articles, and announced writing a book that never came to fruition. Regardless, I’ve found Mann’s concept powerful, especially as seen in several 43 Folders — Inbox Zero articles and the following presentation:

None of what Mann is talking about in Inbox Zero revolutionary. In fact, David Allen talks about a similar concept in his book Getting Things Done. Same goes for the 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss, though that book’s title is more gimmick than a reality, 4-hour Workweek does have some examples of extreme discipline worth taking to heart. Namely, the scheduling of when to reduce your inbox down to zero, which I’ll dig into in a bit. Getting back to the video above, Merlin outlines five actions that should be applied when dealing with email:

  • Delete - Delete anything that is resolved and/or archive what doesn’t require action but can be easily found later. Use filters and/or folders to automate and/or organize further.

  • Delegate - When you are not the right person for the task, make sure to delegate to someone better suited.

  • Respond - Be brief and to the point in your replies. In situations where someone has given you a lot of details, you might need to respond in kind or follow up via different means (i.e. in person chat, meetings, screenshare, etc.)

  • Defer - When you can’t delegate or deal with the action immediately, schedule a follow-up. Using your calendar and/or trusted task manager is a helpful way to handle this appropriately.

  • Do - Whenever a message is actionable and can be quickly knocked out before moving on with the next message, do it and be done with it.

These actions don’t apply to email but to all inbox inputs. We’ll focus on widening the ideas of Inbox Zero by delving into time, technique, and tools below.

Table of Contents

Time

Today’s inbox is bigger and encompasses more than just email. For context, let’s look at a mind map of the different forms of communication that can fill up your inbox and the speed in which they can be addressed:

Inbox Zero

This diagram is what a typical engineer’s inbox looks like — and I’m probably still missing some aspects of this — with a mix of personal and professional interrupts that must be dealt with and resolved in kind. We can zoom in on each form of communication further by starting from the top (fastest) and moving to the bottom (slowest). Let’s start with what I consider to be the fastest:

Inbox Zero
Fast

Social and exception monitoring categories are generally the most vital. These interrupts generally need to be addressed immediately or as soon as possible as they affect the performance of your team and/or customers.

Inbox Zero
Medium

Project management, code review, email, and subscriptions are middle of the road in terms of priority to responding and resolving. All communication in this category is meant to be asynchronous with a maximum response time of one day.

Inbox Zero
Slow

Media and books are the slowest to resolve and generally take a while to digest and put into practice. Whatever the pace that works for you with such long-term projects is fine. These are definitely part of your inbox but work more like a long running queue of material you want to chew on and process slowly. They don’t demand immediate attention or feedback from others unless you are part of a bookclub or group collaboration, for example.

Technique

Now that we have a sense of what is filling up your inbox, let’s consider techniques in how to be effecient in processing your inbox. We’ll need to be disciplined about keeping a high signal to noise and managing interrupts.

In 4-hour Workweek, the recommendation is to check email and alerts (mostly email) once a day and not first thing in the morning. At some point, I’d still like to achive a once a day ritual but what I seem to have settled into is the follow schedule:

  • Dawn - Sync and resolve activity which happened during the evening and through the night.

  • Noon - Sync and resolve activity that occurred during the morning and adjust accordingly.

  • Dusk - Sync and resolve activity that occurred during the afternoon. Expect a decent amount of traffic during this time as the results of the day’s work from across the team surfaces here.

When resolving my inbox at three intervals throughout the day, I make sure to resolve all inbox actions down to zero. There is no exception to this rule, the inbox must be zero. As mentioned in the last chapter of Extreme Ownership, discipline is what sets you free!

Maintaining a high signal to noise is another aspect of technique which requires extreme discipline in order to maintain your focus and process multiple threads at once. Again, pulling heavily from Getting Things Done by David Allen for this as your time is finite and multitasking is a myth. You have to manage your interrupts and ensure when they do occur that the signal is high. If, at any time, you find the noise outpacing the signal then you’ll need to address whatever the noise is so it’s no longer a problem. To explain better, it’d be good to refer back to the mind map listed above. This time, however, let’s break each down specifically (listed from top to bottom):

  • In Person - Open office designs are productivity killers. One solution is to work remotely. That said, if in an office, make sure to give the time and attention people need. Do try to avoid open spaces as much as possible due to the visual and audio distractions they foster.

  • Instant Messaging - Signal is my tool of choice these days for secure contact with others. I only connect with a select group of individuals to keep the volume low.

  • Group Chat - Most companies these days, unfortunately, use Slack. Regardless of the group chat service you use, follow these guidelines to optimize your workflow.

  • Social Media - My recommendation is to get off of social media or only check it occasionally. You would do better with long form thought anyway.

  • Phone - Due to the high volume of robo callers these days, use voice mail. If important, people will learn to leave messages. Otherwise, add important contacts to your address book so you’ll recognize and respond to them immediately.

  • Exception Monitoring - For notifications, graphs, logs, etc. these need immediate attention as they have a direct customer impact. Teams that ignore and don’t pay down this dept are creating a toxic environment for others to work in, end up being unable to retain talent because of the reactive firefighting you are building into your culture, and lose customers who suffer from inconsistent service and reliability. High performing teams working on well architected systems generally don’t see many alerts in this area and, if they do, they are addressed immediately. Push notifications, if supported, are worth enabling for getting alerts via your watch too.

  • Project Management - Whatever service being used, you’ll want to address notifications as soon as you pop up for air. Start by using these tools to plan out your day then, during the course of the day, respond to issues as necessary. For notifications, use the Web UI for this and disable all other notifications.

  • Email - Check, at most, three times a day or when knowing someone has sent something that needs immediate attention. This can be a cumbersome technology to use so apply the following restrictions:

    • Use filters to automate the filing of messages that are information only into appropriate folders for searching later.

    • Use folders to organize your messages. Task managers and/or note taking applications are alternatives worth considering for filing away information you don’t want to store via email.

    • Use descriptive subjects by composing each message with a subject relevant to the content being sent. This will aid with future searching of messages too.

    • Avoid newsletters. Email is the wrong format for this. Use forums, syndicated feeds, etc. instead.

    • Avoid signatures (especially images). It is tempting to add an email signature to each message but they quickly becomes redundant and repetive afterwards. Plus it slows down syncing across mobile devices.

  • Subscriptions - Consider syndicated feeds as a primary source of news with magazines and newspapers being secondary. Reading at the start and end of the day is a good pace in which to stay up to speed on current events. Push notifications and badges of any kind should be disabled because the information is valuable but never mission critical.

  • Media - The media queue is long and endless but set aside time during the nights and weekends for learning. Screencasts, online tutorials/classes, etc. are a great way to keep your skills sharp. If you are paying for cable, switch to digital and save yourself money.

  • Books - Switch to digital instead of physical if you haven’t already. The speed at which you can search through digital copies of your favorite books is unparalleled to physicial copies. In addtion, your digital library is much lighter weight to travel with. The queue is endless on this as well so schedule nights and weekends to devote to learning new skills and ideas.

Tools

The above techniques can only be accomplished if you take the time to build these into a solid habit (hence the quote at the top of this article, by Aristotle). Here are a few tools worth considering that’ll help you augement your workflow:

  • OmniFocus - Software built around the Getting Things Done methodology. Think of it as your digital brain which is a trusted extension/augmentation of your personal thoughts and actions. Whether you use OmniFocus or a similar tool, this’ll be where you organize all of your projects, contexts, and next actions.

  • Calendar - In addition to having a task manager, like OmniFocus, you can use your calendar to schedule blocks of time for deep work and/or remind you of future events to be taken care of.

  • Alfred - The supercharged version of the macOS Spotlight application. You’ll need this for maintaining snippets for quick responses, a multi-item clipboard for pasting recently copied text, workflows for jumping between applications and/or services, and snippets for automating common patterns you don’t want to retype each time.

Conclusion

No matter the tool or technique used, Inbox Zero lays out a path to become more disciplined in your daily life. These practices can seem hard at first but, given time, you’ll crest the learning curve and turn them into habits — That is where the magic, freedom, and performance gains will be realized.

Enjoy and may your inbox always be zero!