Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Inbox Zen: Inbox Zero, a Year Later

It’s been a bit over a year since I moved towards a life strategy of “inbox zero,” meaning cleaned out my inbox of thousands of messages and end each day with zero messages in my email inbox. I no longer let my email messages hang around as undefined and stress-producing “stuff.”

Instead, I process by email by: either responding immediately, deleting or storing a message appropriately or moving task emails into my task management for dealing with it at the right time.

While it might sound somewhat trivial, converting to a work-style of “inbox zero” has been one of my most beneficial life changes this past year. I have less stress, more focused thinking and generally more productive.

I’m less convinced about the technological tools and apps for better email handling, like Mailbox, since I think good email management comes through persistent habits rather than some technological panacea.

Obviously the first and most painful step to converting your email management to “inbox zero” is the big cleanup. If you get a lot of emails and aren’t particularly diligent about managing them, then I’m sure your inbox is rather out of control. My advice is to move all messages over a month old into a new folder, then slowly try to go through all of the messages from the last month. Be ruthless.

Once you’ve cleaned up your inbox, it’s just a question of be disciplined. I no longer just read my email. I process my emails a couple times a day. For me “processing” emails is a bit different than reading and responding. Processing means I tag emails that need responding later, deleting crap and then consider what I need to do next. If it’s time to respond or work on something, then deal with those emails and tasks in my TODO list.

For a digital nomad like myself, optimizing my email workflow has been one of the largest de-stresses over the last year. Email can be a huge demotivator, and one can be easily tempted to responding to email, instead of actually getting stuff done. Email has a place but it’s our job to define what place it takes in our work life.

Obviously Inbox Zero only aims to improve one side of the equation: email reception. Unfortunately, it’s all to easy to just “send an email.” In my opinion, we actually acerbate the collective email problem by emailing more and with little forethought.

Personally, cleaning up my inbox not only clarified my ability to thinking; it has made me productive and creative.

Now I just need to figure out how to convince people to email only when it’s truly relevant to the receiver and when the message and follow required are clear.

Then, I’ll have reached not just Inbox Zero but Inbox Zen.