Four reasons not to dismiss inbox zero

Email perfectionism has a bad reputation, but you can learn something from it without going all in

THE WORLD is turning on inbox zero. The craze for having no unread messages, for emptying your inbox by constantly shuffling email between “to do”, “follow-up” and “completed” folders (and myriad sub-folders), is facing a backlash. First coined by productivity guru Merlin Mann, the idea is that, by looking at your email fewer times a day, but by systematically deleting, filing, or responding to them so your inbox stays clear, you can lower your stress levels, improve your focus, and prevent yourself from dwelling on tasks you haven’t yet had a chance to complete.

But while some compulsives still swear by the system (I do), others think it creates more stress than it resolves. In a recent blog, Harvard Business Review editor Sarah Green called it “a mad and ultimately warping desire for perfection,” which will be remembered much as we recall the 1980s fad for aerobics. In some ways, she’s right. It’s easy to have an empty inbox. More challenging is tending the relentless loops of sub-folders, full of tasks that need finishing. But there are lessons you can learn from inbox zero without going all in.

First, respond to emails quickly. It’s expected of you. A recent survey by Toister Performance Solutions found that nearly 75 per cent of people expect co-workers to reply within four hours or less; 26 per cent wanted a response within an hour. Whether this is reasonable or not is irrelevant. While ideal response times obviously depend on context and priority, there’s a reason you’re being contacted by the lightning fast medium of email, and it’s not just because it’s free. Shengong Gao has even developed a rule for response times, 2-2-2: he picks up calls within two seconds, answers texts within two minutes, and responds to email within two hours. That way, you can avoid the added stress of forgetting to reply to a communication you’re actually interested in.

Then again, your inbox isn’t a filing cabinet. It’s perfectly acceptable to delete or archive messages you have no intention of replying to, or to which the answer is no – especially if it’s a cold approach. Whatever claims are made about social connections made by email, you’ll likely receive many you were unnecessarily copied into, many that are FYI, and hundreds that were not worth sending. Having folders these can be slotted into will free your inbox for things you actually need to do.

While many accuse inbox zero of encouraging obsessiveness, if you limit your email weeding to pre-determined points during the day, you gain the economies of scale of tackling lots of similar tasks in one go, while disciplining your addiction. A 2007 University of Glasgow study found that many people check their inbox as often as 30 to 40 times an hour – so it’s hardly surprising that a third of people felt stressed by heavy email volume. And if it’s unrealistic to limit inbox surfing during the working week, at least try to get everything organised by Friday evening. Inbox zero across a weekly cycle is more realistic.

Finally, even if you consider the whole thing to be unnecessary perfectionism, others will have different thoughts. Efficient filing at the receiving end will be made all the easier if your subject line is clear and direct, puts any significant new details at the top, and appreciates that many will be reading on a mobile (where they’ll be able to see less of it).

And while it’s been designed with marketers in mind, if you’re unsure whether your subject line does the job, MailChimp has a fun tool that tells you what tends to get opened.

App for email management

Boxer was the first, and still claims to be the best, gesture-based interface for looking at email on your mobile. You can wipe clean your inbox by swiping your fingers across your device, sending emails to the trash or to be archived. And for those who like to use their inbox as a to-do list, Boxer lets you turn important messages into tasks to be followed up.