Monday, February 8, 2010

Inbox Zero

For about the past year, I've been dealing with my incoming stream of email in a new way (at least for me).  I heard Andy Hunt ("The Pragmatic Programmer") talk about this at the IEEE conference last year, and I decided to try it.  It's called "inbox zero".

The idea is very simple.  Think about your postal mailbox at home... how many of you would go to the mailbox, take the contents out, look at them, open some of them, and put most of them back in again?  Not many, I would submit.  And yet, people do this same thing all the time with the "inbox" of their email system.

Andy asked how many people had over 100 emails in their inbox.  Just about every hand in the (rather large) room went up.  Then he said how about 200, 500, 1000... it was sobering how many people just left tons of email in their inbox.

Inbox zero basically says this:  my inbox is empty.  When I check it, I empty it.

The specific process to accomplish this is (and should be) different for different people, but here is mine.  Whan I open an email, I then do one of the following things to it:

1. Delete it (spam, or just "okay, see you then" messages).
2. Act on it, and delete it ("send me the file", or "call me" messages).
3. Foward it to someone else (delegate) and delete it.
4. Put it in my "to followup" folder for later action (big, important things).
5. Archive it (I use folders in Outlook or labels in Gmail).

What I *never* do is close it and leave it in the inbox.  Yeah, I do mean never.  The only email that will ever be in my inbox is email that I have not yet opened, and that's because I have not checked the inbox since it arrived.  When I check my inbox, I open every email and do one of those 5 things with it.

What is the point of this?

It's hard to explain, really.  Part of the value is stress reduction.  I think the idea of this big pile of email sitting there all the time creates a general feeling of "wow, I have a lot to do" and being overwhelmed by the notion of ever getting it all done.

Part of it is efficiency.  I deal with each email once, or if it's something substantive (placed into the followup folder) then I treat that as special.  Jokes I want to save, interesting links, stuff I want to prove later, I file away.  Gmail labels are better for this because a message can have more than one label (with Outlook folders, you have to decide "the" folder it belongs in).

But there's more to it than this.  Honestly, this has had a very positive effect on the way I think.  I'm more focused, more purposive, and I seem to remember things better.  Perhaps a cognitive scientest could explain the details, but my experience is that this yields far more than I ever expected, especially from such a simple thing.

Give it a try!  (BTW, if you're worried about "step one", just take your existing inbox and move everything into "old inbox", and start fresh.  That way you won't lose anything, and 99% of that "old inbox" folder is junk anyway).


  1. As a cognitive scientist (sort of...., well not really... in fact... uh.. not at all, but I did take some classes on this over a quarter century ago) I would suggest that the process definitely supports the memory. Having to make decisions about something and put it somewhere would tend to strongly support your memory for two reasons: (1) more time considering the item helps and (2) placing it in a place creates mnemonic (memory) associations. Something you *put* in a place with a given label will be linked to that label in your mind to some degree. Furthermore, the act of considering what to do with something ("should I do this when I do X?") will also cause helpful linkages- in this case, when you think of X, you might recall the first thing. Memory is all about linkages (or at least, memory retrieval is).

  2. Interesting. I have found, however, that it has done more than affect my memory. There is some kind of fundamental stress reduction that accompanies this, and also a (seeming, perceived) increase in productivity.