Part of the Email and messaging glossary:

Inbox Zero is a rigorous approach to email management aimed at keeping the inbox empty -- or almost empty -- at all times. Merlin Mann, a productivity expert and creator of the 43 Folders website, developed the Inbox Zero concept. According to Mann, the zero is not a reference to the number of messages in your inbox but "the amount of your brain that's in your inbox." The point is that ineffective email management negatively affects mental functioning and productivity. 

The first step is processing messages already in the inbox. Mann recommends deleting all messages that have been in the inbox more than 21 days and moving the rest to a folder called "DMZ" (for demilitarized zone). Although the messages still have to be dealt with, having the backlog in a separate folder rather than the inbox makes it seem more manageable. Next, Mann identifies five possible actions to take for each message: delete, delegate, respond, defer and do. 

Here are some of Mann's tips for effective email management:

  • Process email only once every hour or two and don't leave the email client open. 
  • Immediately delete as many messages as possible. 
  • Archive messages that don't require a response but that you may need to keep.
  • Respond to any messages that can be answered in two minutes or less. 
  • Create a separate folder for messages to be responded to later and another for messages that require an action.
  • Deal with messages in folders in short bursts through the day. 
  • Keep messages and responses as brief as possible. 
  • Remove yourself from mailing lists. 

Merlin Mann introduces the inbox zero approach in a Google Tech Talk:


This was last updated in February 2013
Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore
Posted by: Margaret Rouse

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