The Science of Inbox Zero
Welcome to Part Two of my Inbox Zero series! In Part One, I introduced the concept of Inbox Zero (specifically, my flavor of it) and enumerated the steps I take to zero-out my inbox day-to-day. In this follow-up, I will cover some of the specific, practical mechanics of how I execute my Inbox Zero playbook. I also provide the scientific basis in which this methodology has a very real, positive psychological effect, improving efficiency, productivity and happiness.
Jump to Section
*A shoutout to my wife, for which I owe my inspiration for doing this research and writing this post. I’ll convert you one way or another!
In my previous post on Inbox Zero, I introduce a number of concepts and steps for zeroing out an inbox, but notably absent are some of the specifics on how I actually do it. In this section, I cover the tooling, procedures and other variables I use to churn through my email.
In the sections below, I cover a variety of techniques, specifics and examples for steps 3 (Take Action), 4 (Save For Later) and 5/6 (Archive/Delete) of my previously detailed zeroing-out methodology. Steps 1 (Unsubscribe) and 2 (Consume) are pretty simple so I really don’t have anything else of substance to add.
To succeed with Inbox Zero, it is crucial to attack emails with a very action-oriented mindset. Email can not be allowed to live rent-free in your inbox or in your head. If we’re not unsubscribing, easily-consuming, archiving or deleting email right away it’s important to ask ourselves, “what needs to be done to complete this email”. Some techniques I employ are described below…
Augment your inbox with a to-do system: Riding side-saddle to my inbox, I rely on my trusty to-do app to help me remember and prioritize items. Email apps are very ineffective to-do apps 1 and thus shouldn’t be used as one, but your inbox does generate a lot of to-do’s! Naturally then, it makes sense to create a “to-do” for respective items in your inbox. By doing this, you can move an email out of your main inbox and into an appropriate folder, whether that be the “For Later” folder 2 or somewhere else. With a stub for that email now in your to-do app, you can safely have it out of your inbox and take care of it based on your own to-do methodology (more on this later 11).
As an example, let’s say you get an email from your dentist, reminding you to schedule your six-month cleaning. Rather than leaving it in the inbox, I would create an item in my to-do app with a subject such as “schedule 6-month dentist appointment”, then I’d delete the email! If there is information in the email I need to help schedule the appointment, I could instead move the email to the “For Later” folder rather than deleting it. Once I’ve completed the task, I could then go back into that folder and delete it for good.
I personally take this approach to a particular extreme. For emails that require a substantive task to be completed (i.e. not just consuming information), I will often create a to-do, even if I can complete it right away! The very act of creating the to-do and then marking it as complete has a psychologically-positive effect. Checking things off, no matter how small, can help build productive momentum 12. Just be sure to not overdo it here as creating endless tiny to-dos would certainly introduce counter-productive overhead when done at scale.
Stars and flags: Email systems usually have the concept of starring or flagging an email as a way to denote its relative importance. If you follow the guidance from the previous bullet (creating to-do’s associated with emails and tackling them that way) then you technically don’t really need to utilize stars/flags as you would be taking things out of email and prioritizing them in your to-do system instead. With that said, I still star things in my email app as it does add that extra bit of emphasis and urgency for certain emails that I know I need to get to.
The power of delegation: Delegation is an under-utilized action in the world of people’s personal email (and to-do methodologies in general). There is plenty of email I receive that in order to fully “take action” on it, there is a dependency on someone else.
As an example, I may get an email about picking something up from the store but need to coordinate with my wife on when to go. In this case, the dependency is getting a response from my wife about it. Here I could forward the email to my wife (or text her), suggesting a time for me to go pick it up. Now I can move this email to “For Later” as it doesn’t require any additional action from me. Further, I can create a task in my to-do with a subject such as “pick up the thing from the store”. Here I took decisive action on the email, I progressed the task and most importantly, I got one email closer to Inbox Zero!
Inbox checking frequency: This is entirely up to you and really just depends on your own philosophy around “disconnecting”. With that said, depending on the volume of email you receive, I recommend checking it somewhat frequently in order to be able to process it in smaller chunks. (More on this later.)
Saving for Later
OK, so as we have seen in the previous section, a lot of what “taking action” means in reality is in fact not taking immediate action but rather storing the respective item for action at a later date. There are a few techniques I use for this. You can use one or more of these simultaneously to help stay on top of what you need to do while also keeping that inbox shiny and clean.
The enigmatic “For Later” folder: I put a fair amount of things in my notorious “For Later” folder 2 - and for a variety of reasons. One could argue, “why is having a bunch of stuff in a separate For Later folder better than just keeping it in your inbox?” I’ll cover the psychological benefits of this concept later, but let me start with explaining the more mechanical benefits.
It’s undeniable that there is some amount of time required to mentally process/initially-triage emails within your inbox. As you work through your inbox - deleting, archiving, consuming, whatever - you spend some time on each. By leaving an email in your inbox (rather than taking an action that would remove it from your inbox), you open yourself up to having to mentally re-assess that item as it now lies adjacent to a new (or otherwise un-processed) email that actually requires fresh review. Rather than forcing yourself to reassess these emails each and every time you check your inbox, simply move them to the “For Later” folder and then review that folder at a less-frequent cadence (more on this interval below!)
“For Later” folder checking frequency: OK, so let’s say we are moving things into the “For Later” folder - how often should we then consult this folder? Ultimately, I believe this would vary from person to person and it in some ways depends on the frequency in which someone generally checks their inbox. I check my inbox multiple times daily, but I only check “For Later” every couple of days at most. Here you can immediately see the time savings as I am not needing to review these each and every time I check my inbox! The idea here is to check it at a much less frequent interval. If you find yourself checking it often and generally taking no actions, you can probably check it less frequently! With all this said, there’s an even better way to deal with most “For Later” items. (Check out the next bullet!)
For Later triggers: Once we start sticking lots of things in “For Later” rather than keeping them in the inbox, we could really benefit from a system that helps us remember to review those items while also not necessitating needless checking of each email in that folder when no action is yet needed. So how do we achieve this? Well, in a few ways!
- We previously covered creating corresponding to-do tasks for emails in the taking action section. If you are leveraging this technique, you can close out “For Later” email items at the same time you close out to-do items based on your chosen to-do methodology. Sweet!
- As another example, let’s say you have a “For Later” email for a delivery you are expecting that you want to make sure you receive. In this case, I have a delivery tracking app that monitors the progress of my delivery. Once I receive it, I can archive/delete that email in my “For Later” box.
- Essentially, the idea behind the majority of “For Later” items is that there should be an external trigger that fires, reminding you to consult the “For Later” box and “close out” or make progress towards closure, of the email item.
When to take substantive action: How do I decide whether to take substantive action vs setting it aside for later? I don’t think there is a real amount-of-time threshold for how I decide when to deal with things (the “Two Minute Rule” 10 we will discuss later pegs the threshold at, you guessed it! - 2 minutes). For me, this is more of a, what do I feel like doing right now or what do I have time to do right now question. 11
Don’t leave things in your inbox you will never get to! This is a simple axiom. Just get rid of it! (or archive somewhere)
What actually ends up in the “For Later” folder?: This will vary person to person, but for me it’s things like tracking number emails, online order confirmations, future travel artifacts/events (e.g. flight/excursion confirmations), assorted to-do’s (that of course have corresponding records in my to-do app), and really any other item that I know I want to get to eventually but don’t really care when.
When do I leave things in the inbox?: In some cases, I leave things in my inbox rather than moving to the “For Later” folder after triaging. What?? Isn’t that contrary to what I suggested earlier? Kinda, but let me explain… I detailed earlier how items that make their way into the “For Later” folder are typically tied to a to-do or some other external trigger. Well if there is an item that doesn’t have a trigger, or a to-do, and needs to be addressed in relatively short-order, I will sometimes decide to just leave it in my inbox. Alternatively, for items that I want to constantly remind myself of, I leave it in the inbox as my eyes will continually be drawn to it each and every time I check my email.
Snoozing: One feature that a lot of email providers have adopted is “Snooze”. This is a very easy way to move an item for later based on a chosen time-delay. I use this in cases where I know I need to check in on something at a particular date and don’t want to create a to-do for it instead.
Archival vs Deletion
I wanted to provide a quick (list driven, of course) process flow related to steps 5/6 from my high-level zero-out playbook.
Once you’ve taken all non-storage/deletion-related actions on an email, follow the following steps for processing.
- Do you need this email? No? Delete. Yes? Go to Step 2.
- Do I have an existing folder/label that I can archive this email into? Yes? Put email in that folder. No? Go to Step 3.
- Does it make sense to create a new folder for emails of this type? Yes? Create folder, archive email into the new folder. No? Generically archive it rather than deleting it.
The idea behind the final flow of Step 3 is that we can archive things “generically” so that we can search for and find things later. By doing so, we do not introduce unnecessary clutter into another folder/label nor will we necessitate the creation of a new folder/label that will never have much in it. Nice!
Email Process(ing) Flow
To help illustrate the overall process flow of how I process my email, I’ve developed the following diagram.
Alright, assuming you read the previous section, you now know WAY more about my e-mail processing workflow than any normal human should. Let’s now get into why managing your email in this way is good for you straight-up emotionally. This section will introduce a variety of semi-isolated topics, associating well and independently researched scientific studies with the relevant qualities of “Inbox Zero”. Buckle up!
If a cluttered
deskinbox is a sign of cluttered mind, of what, then, is an organized deskinbox a sign? 3
You may be familiar with Marie Kondo’s KonMari method for organization, the main principle being you keep only those things that “spark joy”. I don’t recommend following this exactly in the context of your email (as there is plenty of email I need that doesn’t quite spark joy) but I think the underlying thought here makes sense. Keep only what you need (or of course, enjoy). For everything else, delete or unsubscribe! In this way, you can transform and then live your (digital) life the way you want.
The second tenant of the KonMari method is to ensure everything has a place to go. In the context of your email, this means for things you do want to keep, make sure they are filed away in an appropriate place. Essentially, this is digital house-keeping. Collectively, this methodology promotes mindfulness, introspection and an eye towards the future. 4
A 2011 Princeton study titled “Interactions of Top-Down and Bottom-Up Mechanisms in Human Visual Cortex” 5 (inhales) explains how clutter impairs focus, thus making it more difficult to complete tasks efficiently. I won’t regurgitate the rather complex science introduced by the research, but what I can say is that when applied to how one might review/process their email, it would follow that by actively reducing the amount of items in your inbox, you can maintain an environment (one with less overall emails) that is scientifically better suited for efficiency/productivity. In other words, even if you can’t achieve truly 0 emails (effectively, Inbox Zero), the sheer fact that you have very few emails in your inbox promotes a more effective working environment.
A Dutch study from 2017 titled “Impact of cleanliness on the productivity of employees” 6 investigates the correlation between cleanliness and productivity. Unsurprisingly, it was found that cleanliness significantly increased perceived productivity and general work satisfaction. This follows with the previously mentioned research 5 - having a clean or otherwise organized environment (whatever that may be) fosters productivity and efficiency! Traditional wisdom suggests that having an organized workstation helps promote productivity. Given our reliance on email as a primary means in which we collaborate and work, it makes sense for us to keep our inbox and other respective email folders clean and tidy.
- To wrap up the theme of organization & cleanliness and how it applies to email, consider some of the following statistics on Organizing & Time Management gathered by the author of the blog Simply Productive. These stats lay bare the cost of clutter and disorganization.
- One stat describes the amount of time (~150 hours/year) wasted searching for lost information. The National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) even claims that on average, we spend one year of our lives looking for lost items. With a properly pruned and sorted email system, you can significantly reduce the time it takes to find things in your email!
- Email is increasing in print volume by 40%! This is why ruthlessly unsubscribing is one of the more powerful tools at your disposal.
- Using proper organization tools can improve time management by almost 40%. Inbox Zero, to-do lists, and all the other tactics described in this series can be certainly be considered as some of these tools.
The benefits of being organized don’t end with increased productivity though, there is also very compelling science which points to its stress-reduction qualities as well!
In one study, titled “No place like home: home tours correlate with daily patterns of mood and cortisol…” 7 ( ), the researchers identified a correlation between how individuals described their home, and the severity of depressed mood they experienced. In this experiment, even recounting the general cleanliness/organizational-state of their home proved to be stressful (when the individuals in fact had cluttered homes). What I take away is that people who strive to, and succeed in maintaining an acceptable level of organization/cleanliness will in turn be less stressed! This idea is enforced by a subsequent study, “The dark side of home: Assessing possession ‘clutter’ on subjective well-being” 8, which concludes that clutter has a negative impact on the psychological home and subjective well-being. This is due to our inherent need to identify self with our physical environment, of which a messy or cluttered one does not reflect well. Put it all together and one could surmise that messiness in general, whether it be in an inbox or in the home, can introduce unwanted stress.
Saving time - which can be achieved through improved efficiency, has been proven to reduce/prevent stress. 9
So we now have the basis for how organization and cleanliness can improve productivity, efficiency and even reduce stress. Let’s talk about how we apply the psychology of task management / GTD 11 in the context of Inbox Zero…
Let’s start with the “Two Minute Rule” 10, first introduced by David Allen in “Getting Things Done”. The rule simply states, “If you can complete a task in less than two minutes, you should just do it.” This is a core tenant of the Inbox Zero methodology. Look, no one loves procrastinating more than me, but by just doing it, you can clear things out of the inbox (reducing clutter) and start building productive momentum 12 by completing the micro-tasks that these emails represent. 13
At the end of the day, an inbox is really just a list of things to do (e.g. read, delete, archive, etc…). A lot of peoples inboxes are PACKED, with 10’s, 100’s, even 1000’s+ of emails. This is naturally a bit overwhelming. Well David Allen is back with some really great advice on how to leverage a GTD philosophy to mentally tackle a large list of to-dos. He condenses the complexities of every day task prioritization into three separate dynamics - limitations, adaptability & life purpose.
E.J. Masicampo, a Psychology professor at Wake Forest University, has documented research examining the relationship between having too many “goals” activated within one’s environment and how that constrains mental faculties. In the context of email / lists in general, he essentially postulates that by having too many visible to-dos (or things on your list) at one time you compromise your mental effectiveness. He goes on to say that attention can be freed by satisfying “active goals”, such as through plan making or goal completion. One way in which to “make plans” in this context, and in the world of Inbox Zero, is to decompose a more complex task (originating in this case from an email) by creating a series of micro-tasks 13, thus devising a plan to complete the overall task.
The “Zeigarnik Effect” states that “people tend to remember unfinished or incomplete tasks better than completed tasks”. This model suggests a key to overcoming procrastination is to simply, just get started. So by leveraging something like the Two Minute Rule 10, we can psychologically build productive momentum. Further, the Zeigarnik Effect suggests that mental health improvements can be achieved by A. NOT having incomplete items languishing in your to-do list and relatedly, B. the sense of accomplishment you get by completing tasks. 13
In fact, it’s well understood that when we humans check things off, our brains release dopamine that in turn makes us feel, amazing. That satisfaction and sense of accomplishment can have a snowball effect, motivating us to continue completing even more tasks. By leveraging this simple psychology, we can overcome procrastination by starting small and working our way towards larger and larger tasks. Where a task may be too large and intimidating to begin, consider breaking it into smaller, more atomic micro-tasks, each of which is more easily individually digestable.
- A word of warning!: While leveraging to-do lists and GTD 11 methodologies has a lot of practical utility, be weary of over-generating to-dos in the name of micro-task-completing 13. This is the way towards developing an OCD complex.
At the end of the day, how and what you do with your email is somewhat personal and what’s “best” for one person will not necessarily be the same for someone else. If you are drowning in email or like the idea of Inbox Zero, consider this slightly tweaked approach!
- The Zen of Inbox Zero
- Inbox Zero by Merlin Mann
- Starring, Flagging & Snoozing
- 1 SUPERHUMAN | Everything you need to know about the Inbox Zero Method
- 2 Let’s Zero It Out - Step 4
- 3 Quote Investigator
- 4 KonMari Method
- 5 Interactions of Top-Down and Bottom-Up Mechanisms in Human Visual Cortex
- 6 Impact of cleanliness on the productivity of employees
- Simply Productive
- 7 No place like home: home tours correlate with daily patterns of mood and cortisol…
- 8 The dark side of home: Assessing possession ‘clutter’ on subjective well-being
- 9 Stress prevention through a time management training intervention: an experimental study
- 10 Two Minute Rule
- 11 Getting Things Done | GTD
- E.J. Masicampo Research Interests
- 12 Zeigarnik Effect
- 13 Micro-Tasks. The Pleasure of Checking Off