An email inbox isn’t the only place where you need peace of mind. Developed by Merlin Mann, the productivity expert behind 43 Folders, Inbox Zero is an ingenious strategy for managing your email inbox by keeping it empty, or nearly so, at all times.
Even though it’s already helped people’s workflows immeasurably, it can be used for so much more than just electronic communication. The thinking behind Inbox Zero can translate to many aspects of life and productivity.
Read below to learn more about Mann’s Inbox Zero concept, how it can be applied to other productivity tools and why it’s such a malleable idea.
1. A look at the traditional Inbox Zero
With Inbox Zero, Mann essentially treats email as its own to-do list. He focuses on five actions you can take so that you can either archive or delete messages, similar to how you would check items off a to-do list
Delete: Simply get rid of it or archive the message. If you’re regularly getting email that you don’t want like newsletters, unsubscribe or mark it as spam.
Delegate: Forward the message to someone else for them to take care of.
Respond: Reply to the emails that need responses. Mann believes this should be done right away when the response will only take a couple minutes.
Defer: Either put it on a to-do list or have it pop back up in your inbox with an email app like Mailbox when you need to take action.
Do: Take care of whatever the email tells you that you need to do.
It’s a great, relatively simple way to manage something that can get as messy as an email inbox. You can learn a lot more about Inbox Zero by watching this video.
What’s especially brilliant about it, but that Mann doesn’t fully explore, is that other software or tools can involve these same five actions, or at least something akin to them. Here’s a look at three things that can follow Mann’s Inbox Zero system.
2. Inbox Zero for lists
Yes, lists can have an inbox for you to whittle down to zero. There’s the obvious to-do list, which Getting Things Done largely focuses on. But there are other types of lists that benefit from an inbox.
A wish list is a solid example. Many people will browse Amazon and add anything that they think they might want to buy at some point to their wish list. That creates a lot of clutter.
Users can separate the items in their inbox into different lists based on criteria like product category, but that leaves no room to sort based on aspects like priority.
By creating an Inbox list where every item added to your wish list is automatically sent, users can handle their potential purchases the same way the traditional Inbox Zero takes care of email. Here are how the five actions fit into this system.
Delete: Remove the items on your list that you’re confidant you either won’t or shouldn’t purchase.
Delegate: If you added any items because you thought a friend would be interested, send your friend a links to those pages so you can delete the item from your own wish list.
Respond: Take any additional action you need to like looking at reviews and doing other research.
Defer: Put the items you’re not sure about into a list other than the inbox.
Do: Purchase items in your inbox when you’re in the mood to or when it’s time to.
It’s not an exact match to Mann’s version, but you get the idea. This kind of system also works for grocery lists, checklists, etc.
3. Inbox Zero for collections
If you come home with a stack of novels you bought at the bookstore, you might not want to sort all of them on your bookshelf right away. Therefore, it would make sense if you had a place, like a separate shelf, where you can place the unsorted books until you have the time, energy or motivation to put them where they’re supposed to go.
I think this works even better with web browser bookmarks. When you bookmark a page you can send them all to the same folder (which you can name “Inbox”) and take necessary actions when you have that chance.
Delete: If a bookmark doesn’t prove useful or is no longer relevant, delete it right away.
Delegate: Send the links to the right parties.
Respond: If someone sent you a link looking for your thoughts, look at the link and offer your opinion so that you can delete it from your inbox.
Defer: If you don’t know what to do with certain bookmarks yet, send them to a “Later” subfolder.
Do: Take whatever action you need to so that you can delete or archive the bookmark.
4. Inbox Zero for files
The files you download can be carefully sorted by using your Downloads folder as an inbox. Here are the ways Mann’s five actions for Inbox Zero fit with what you download from a computer.
Delete: If a file isn’t relevant, delete it or archive it.
Delegate: Send the files to other people if they should take care of something involving it.
Respond: If someone wants you to look at a file like a PDF, look at it and give your feedback so you can delete it.
Defer: Put files you don’t know what to do with in a subfolder called “Later.”
Do: Take whatever action you need to so that you can either delete or archive the files.
5. The malleability of Inbox Zero
You can schedule all of your goals, immediate, short and long-term, in an app like Trello. The list goes on and on.
With Inbox Zero Merlin Mann created a way for dealing with email, one of our most important productivity tools. But, while doing that, he also stumbled on an idea that can be used for so much more. Take advantage of it.