Inbox Zero

We all get deluged daily with Inbox messages from email, text, Slack, threads in Asana, and elsewhere.

It’s absolutely essential to have a thoughtful approach to dealing with them all – otherwise, you’ll feel (and be) buried by communication. The outcome of which is:

You’ll struggle to do meaningful, deep work.

You’ll risk missing time-sensitive messages.

Think of your combined inboxes as a single triage room in a hospital. Some cases that come in are urgent, others not so much. It is critical to notice the urgent ones immediately and get them to see a doctor now. To do so, you must keep the triage room clear. If you use the triage room as a waiting room as well, then a new patient can enter the room, sit down in a chair, and bleed out from his stab wound before you even realize they’re there.

For this reason, every functional hospital separates its triage room from its waiting room and keeps the triage room absolutely clear.

To be efficient, you must take the same approach with your inbox (by which we mean combined inboxes across platforms).

This action means addressing all of the urgent cases right away and maintaining Inbox Zero every day.

I recommend checking your Inbox only twice a day (once in the morning, once in the afternoon). If you check your email incessantly, multiple times an hour, you are wasting hours of productivity. Instead, batch your time and clean out your entire Inbox at those times. Each time, follow this process:

If the email/message takes less than two minutes to address, do it immediately.


If it takes more than two minutes, write down a Next Action (according to the Getting Things Done methodology) and then ensure the email is where it needs to be (snoozed, marked as read in your inbox until you need to address it or left marked as unread if it is high-priority).

Consider the approach that I use…

Next Action: leave it in the inbox but marked as read once I have planned the next action. Set a to-do up for it so I know that I will get back to it (if the email/message takes more than 2 but less than 10-15 minutes to respond to, the to-do as a reminder elsewhere may not be necessary).

Waiting For: the email is snoozed until I estimate I will be able to address it (or know based on the scenario). If unsure, remember that you can later check all emails you’ve snoozed quite easily…

Someday/Maybe or Reference: move it to a separate folder but out of the inbox, i.e. if it is a newsletter that I enjoy reading and feel I will get value to, I add it to a Reading List folder (in fact, this is done automatically for all emails that are sent to [email protected] so I use that email to sign up for newsletters to help keep my inbox clear).

Note: Once done, at all costs, do not leave emails (even if already marked as read) sitting in your inbox. This is leaving your triage room full of emails.

An interesting approach that works if you use Gmail’s web client (I do not, I use Missive) is the approach outlined in this blog post. In it, Andreas explains how to use Gmail’s Multiple Inbox features to create an inbox for Next Action, Waiting For, Someday/Maybe, and Reference.

You can set the system up in 15 minutes.

Repeat until you get to Inbox Zero. If you are truly fearless, you can get to Inbox Zero within the hour (yes, even if you have 1,000s of emails in your Inbox right now).

Updated on February 8, 2024

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