What is inbox zero?

Inbox zero is essentially the moment you have processed everything in your email inbox and it's all organised.

The term was coined by writer Merlin Mann first in an article and later in a book 'Inbox Zero: Cutting Through the Crap to Do the Work That Matters'.

The term is widely used by productivity hackers and lifestyle gurus because achieving inbox zero represents some level of control over your digital life. The self-help crowd associate inbox zero with a calm, stress-free and efficient state of being.

How lovely.

In recent times, Merlin has hit back at those taking the inbox zero concept to the extreme.

The volume of communication that arrives on our screens has grown and grown. This can make achieving inbox zero much harder and in so doing, the act of trying to reach inbox zero is in itself a stress-inducing process.

When email volume is an issue for you, aiming for an unattainable goal isn't healthy. No sooner have you achieved inbox zero, another email pops in and spoils it.

While the original aim of inbox zero remains relevant, the processes through which you acquire inbox zero can have unintended consequences.

However, there is a new concept that rather conveniently rhymes with inbox zero and is arguably a smarter approach to feeling in control of your email inbox.

Be an Inbox Hero

The inbox hero concept is not so well-defined so I would like to offer Plum Mail's take on what being a total inbox hero is.

If you're inbox is Lex Luther then you're Superman. Being an inbox hero is a character you can become. This person has an approach to life which is courageous, strong-willed and fundamentally in control of the situation yet thoughtful and kind towards others. Contrary to popular belief, there is not strict requirement to wear a cape. Anyone can be a inbox hero.

Back to Lex Luther. He's at it again, causing trouble in the neighbourhood. A few spam emails here, a newsletter you didn't subscribe to there then he emails you 15 times with 15 tasks and says 'sorry to bombard your inbox'.

Well an inbox hero does none of those things but also knows how to handle it with these three marvellous tips:

1. Turn off your email

This is a massively overlooked superpower all inbox zero heroes possess. Ask yourself, do you need what's in the inbox right now to do the thing you want to do? If not, turn it off and don't look at it again until you need what's in there.

I know it's hard to do. The delightful 'ding' of a new mail is addictive and you're worried what other people will think of you but trust me on this one. Once you're out of the game, you'll see the light. When I started turning off my email I would imagine I was driving my car a long distance. Obviously checking email is both illegal and impracticle while driving so if I can go 4 hours in a car without looking at email, I can go 4 hours at my desk.

But go easy on yourself. Build up to a day without email. Start with half an hour then allow yourself a peek. Build up to a couple of hours then try for 'not until after lunch'. You get the idea. I'd hate to see you shivering in a corner, your left eye twitching counting down the minutes until you can read your email again.

Doesn't sound very Clark Kent does it.

2. Never, ever, mark anyhing as 'unread'

Interestingly enough, Plum Mail doesn't have an 'unread' option. When you think about it, an unread email is silly. If you've read it you've read it. You can't 'un read' something unless you can get hold of one of those mind-wiping sticks the Men in Black have. Wait, can you?

Effectively what you're doing is triaging email into tasks, even if that task is simply to reply later on.

Marking as unread wastes the triage effort you put in because you just end up triaging again, and maybe even a third time.

When you open an email, make a decision. Either:

Ask and answer questions

If you want someone to do something, make it super clear. Calls to action aren't just for marketing geeks, they're for email super heroes too.

It doesn't have to be pushy, just plain and obvious: 'Please do this'. 'let me know about that'.

Be direct instead of wishy-washy sentences. This wishy washy request arrived in my inbox recently:

Here's the new design for the website. I think it's ok. Might be good to catchup sometime next week.

How about:

Please can you let me know your thoughts on this new website design? In particular, I am concerned the colours might be a little insipid.

A concrete actionable question, thank you. Now, for pity's sake, answer it!

If you're asked a direct question, just answer it. Holy roses of Swindon there is nothing more annoying than an unanswered question. "What do you want to eat at the Christmas party Keith?" he replied: 'Sure, sounds great'.

So that's inbox zero and inbox hero explained with literally the top three things you can do to save yourself and others from the email rabbit hole. Try them, you'll feel a lot better.