Forget Inbox Zero: Focus on Reaching Inbox Zen

Forget Inbox Zero: Focus on Reaching Inbox Zen
Image credit: Death to the Stock Photo

In the eight years since productivity and work guru Merlin Mann coined “Inbox Zero,” the idea of having an empty inbox has become a trendy aspiration. People fixate on having a clean email screen, but I think they’re missing the point.

Reaching inbox zero isn’t just about not having any unprocessed messages; it’s about the clarity and peace of mind that come with it. The goal shouldn’t be reaching inbox zero. We really need to strive for "inbox Zen.”

One study declares that up to 80 percent of emails are “waste.” An unruly inbox full of unread messages, to-do lists we’ve emailed to ourselves and newsletters we don’t have the time to read creates stress and mental anguish. Entrepreneurs are especially vulnerable to this because they always have new messages and new demands on their attention pulling them in 100 different directions.

I learned years ago that the only way out of that insanity is to start managing your inbox and stop letting it manage you. Inbox Zen doesn’t just mean deleting your old messages and starting fresh. Without a clear plan for managing your inbox, you’re liable to fall back into old habits and feel anxiety creep back into your consciousness.

Related: Ditch Email, and Instead Use These 3 Tools at Your Startup

Use the following tips to make inbox Zen an achievable and sustainable state of being:

1. Reduce junk mail.

Review your email subscriptions and be brutally honest about which ones take up unnecessary space. If you have 20 back issues of a newsletter taking up mental and virtual space, it’s time to unsubscribe. The same goes for ecommerce newsletters, site updates and anything that isn’t relevant to your day-to-day or long-term interests. Make an effort to block spam as well.

2. Train your team. 

We live in an email- and cc-crazed world. Stop the madness by instructing your team to copy you only on the most relevant messages and to call if something is truly urgent. Then, extend the same courtesy to your team, clients, family and friends.

3. Auto-organize your inbox. 

Set up filters so certain emails are sent to folders you can review later in the day once you’ve tended to your priority tasks. You can also use labels for accounts you regularly correspond with, which makes it easy to scan your inbox and pick out which messages likely need a quick response and which you can deal with later. There are plenty of tools to help you with this task.

3. Use a 'read later' system. 

Save interesting but non-urgent emails to a specific folder or to an organizational system such as Evernote. Apps like Pocket and Instapaper allow you to save articles or other media people have sent you throughout the day so you can easily access them when you have some downtime.

Related: 5 Rude Emails You Send Every Day

4. Create task lists. 

Your inbox is not a task list. Break the habit of emailing yourself reminders and to-do items by establishing dedicated task lists for your day-to-day priorities and long-term projects. Make sure you set deadlines, mark priority items and break large tasks down into actionable items.

This is the basis of David Allen’s "Getting Things Done" method. Allen advocates using a structured, principled system. By getting your to-do list out of the inbox, you’re less likely to become distracted and anxious as you see new messages coming in.

5. Move quickly. 

Act on emails that take fewer than two minutes. Anything that requires more time than that should be filed into the task list or sent to your “read later” folder. Apps such as Zero can help you simplify this process.

As an entrepreneur, you have a lot going on around you. That’s why an effective system for processing messages is important to your mental health. The stream of emails never stops, so it’s up to you to ensure you don’t drown in it. Regaining control of your email means peace of mind and a more productive workday. Once you’ve done that, you’ve truly reached inbox Zen.

Related: The 5 Magic Elements That Boost Email Marketing ROI Into the Stratosphere