Inbox Zero is often touted as the holy grail of email management.

Ending your day with nothing left pending in your inbox? Sounds great! Yet for most people, this is still far from reality. Considering that the average office worker receives 121 emails per day (and that checking emails isn’t their primary job!), it’s easy to see why the emails tend to pile up.

Inbox Zero is a concept that was developed by Merlin Mann a few years ago. There are a few different takes on how to achieve it, while some people just don’t agree with the concept at all. For EAs and executives trying to manage busy inboxes, we wanted to know, how do people get to Inbox Zero and is it worth doing?

The cases for and against Inbox Zero

Let’s start with why you might adopt Inbox Zero. The idea behind it isn’t to completely zero your inbox. Mann explained that it’s more about time management, or, as he said, “the amount of time an employee’s brain is in their inbox.”

You need to be able to detach from your inbox in order to focus your brain on your most pressing tasks. Crowded inboxes can be both a distraction and an excuse for procrastination, which the Inbox Zero idea seeks to eliminate.

Some proponents for Inbox Zero prefer to completely clear out their inbox daily because it leaves them with a sense of accomplishment that nothing is lingering at the end of the day. The secret to their success is NOT checking their inbox constantly, but having one or two dedicated times each day where they clear out emails.

Critics of Inbox Zero often say that it’s just not realistic, or they end up spending more time on trying to whittle down their inbox than working on other tasks they need to get done. For some, aspects of the techniques followed by the Inbox Zero approach don’t work for them. For example, many people find that archiving emails into folders causes them to lose sight of what they need to be paying attention to. They argue that keeping pending email chains in their inbox means that they’re going to check back in.

Should APs and executives aim for Inbox Zero?

This depends on your work preferences. It’s not for everyone and many people find alternative methods. For people with 900 unread emails, the idea of trying to zero them all is overwhelming. If you can’t commit to the email management techniques of Inbox Zero, or if it’s just not a priority for the executive or administrative professional, then it’s not for you.

On the other hand, for many executives, Inbox Zero is a priority and they need their AP to help them get there. Again we’d say, find a system that works for you. There’s more than one way to do Inbox Zero and if clearing out the inbox leads to important email chains falling off the radar or to more work managing emails, then you haven’t found the right method.

How do people reach Inbox Zero?

If hitting Inbox Zero sounds like a good goal for you, then you need to know a few techniques that people typically use to get there. While there are “purist” Inbox Zero followers who end their work day with an empty inbox, there are also “loose” followers who simply want to clear it as much as possible each day.

Here’s what people do:

Unsubscribe from unneeded emails

Most people’s inboxes become inundated with various subscription emails at some point. One way to help get your inbox closer to zero is to unsubscribe from anything you really don’t need.

If unsubscribing to emails seems like it’s going to be a lot of work, there are tools available that can help., Gmail Unsubscriber and Leave Me Alone are examples of tools that will help you to unsubscribe from multiple emails with a single click.

While you’re at it, if you have social media set to send you email notifications that you don’t need for work, turn those off too!

Follow the “OHIO” method

OHIO is an acronym from Trello for “Only Handle it Once.” Here’s how it works:

  1. You block off particular times on your calendar for managing email each day. The idea is to stick to those so that you’re not being reactive and constantly going back to respond to the most recent emails to hit your inbox.
    It’s also a way to maintain focus on your other important tasks. As much as humans like to think we’re great at multitasking, we’re really not. Several studies have shown we’re actually rapidly serial tasking, and every time our focus is hijacked (say, to respond to an email or a Slack ping), it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on task.
    Sticking to particular times to check email helps you to manage it more effectively because you’re not dividing your attention. In most work settings, anything truly urgent isn’t sent via email anyway…
  2. During your email responding time, open each email and do one of three things: respond to it, delete it, or put it in your task/project management tool. You’re only handling it once!
  3. Archive the emails you didn’t already delete.

Have a good organization system for your inbox

Inboxes have several options for organization of your emails and Inbox Zero proponents tend to find a system that works for them. Tags, folders and labels can help to ensure that you can easily search and find emails if you need to later.

You can also use apps to help prioritize and organize your emails. For example, Inbox by Gmail can help you sort messages into categories, quickly scan for photos, attachments or invitations, and sync events with your calendar.
Some other email organization apps to look at include: Sortd, Boomerang, and CloudMagic.

Respond if it will take less than two minutes

Management consultant David Allen implements a two-minute rule with his emails. It simply means that if it will take less than two minutes to respond right now, then it’s better to do so and be done with it rather than putting it into your tasks for later.

This can be one method you can use to determine which emails you’ll respond to if you follow the OHIO strategy.

Set clear boundaries around when you need to be included

One reason that many people struggle to get to Inbox Zero is because of the sheer volume of emails they’re CC’d or BCC’d on. If you look at your inbox, you can probably find examples of emails where you are CC'd, but don’t necessarily need to know that information right now.

Here’s an example: if an executive has assigned a project to team members and asked them to come back with a solution to some kind of problem, that executive doesn’t need to be CC'd on every organizational email in between. Give clear instructions such as “loop me back in once you’ve narrowed it down to three potential solutions.”

Another example is to have certain designated days for non-urgent updates. You might request that the team roll a few quick points into one email sent every Wednesday so that you’re not getting an email for every small development.

Lastly, you might request that people use a certain subject line format when it’s something that you need to take action on, rather than simply be aware of. For example, by starting the subject line with “To Do: [Description of Task]” it helps to get an immediate view of your tasks.

Final thoughts

If Inbox Zero sounds appealing, then you need organizational strategies to keep your email in-check. As one last tip, keep work and personal emails in separate accounts. Mixing the two can lead to buildup in your work inbox and important messages getting missed.

Inbox Zero builds a fortress around your inbox and creates clear processes. The idea is to spend less time managing your emails and more time on valuable work tasks.

Find a system that works for you and go for it. There’s no one “right” way to take care of email management.