Year for Productivity Session 3: Email: To Zero or not to zero… that is one of the questions..


When discussions commence about the topic of productivity, inevitably the topic of email overload is soon a focus of discussion. We have hundreds (or thousands for some people) of emails in various work and personal accounts cluttering up our mailboxes and our minds every day. We have devices that allow us to stay in contact with email wherever we go and it is almost impossible to avoid the sight of individuals tapping and scrolling through their mobile devices, either trying to keep up with the pace of the information or compulsively checking to be sure they find and read critical messages as soon as they appear.

There are several prominent techniques to address the issue of email overload:

That First Hour of the Day:

Popular productivity theory urges individuals to carve away a significant block of time at the start of the day to work on projects, deferring the lure of signing into email until a later time.   There are a number of benefits by cultivating this habit.  First, in most offices, the first hour of the day is often a quiet time with few meetings: a time tailor-made to focus on achieving top tasks from your to-do list.  Second, email is a place where other people are requesting your attention and time on items from THEIR to-do lists, not yours, and you find yourself becoming a person who is focused on reacting to others instead of proactively furthering your goals.  Tim Ferriss calls it “being a slave to your inbox” in his popular book, “The Four Hour Work Week.”   Finally, have you ever looked up from your email to realize that hours have passed and your goals for the day are yet to be started?  Email can be quicksand to your time management goals.

Inbox Zero:

The Inbox Zero phenomenon is most often credited to Merlin Mann, who in 2007 authored a series of posts on the 43 Folders website.  The series, entitled Inbox Zero, described in great detail Mann’s theory of improving productivity by handling email once, sorting, storing, deleting and taking action as needed based on the email content.   His daily goal was maintaining a totally empty inbox.  His methodology is based on the concepts put forth in David Allen’s book, “Getting Things Done”, which focused more on productivity using a paper/pencil organization system.  Mann’s 43 Folders website transferred those concepts to the work world online.

I highly recommend Merlin Mann’s Google Tech Talk in our Selected Readings section.  He does an excellent job of making the Inbox Zero method sensible and doable. One question asked of Mann is a common concern:  Everyone expects me to see communications immediately… I can’t only look a few times a day!  Mann  suggests, as do I, to initiate a conversation with your work team and your manager.  Agree on what reasonable expectations are and then work from that point.

But I have HUNDREDS of emails in my inbox!  How could I ever find time to even ATTEMPT a Zero inbox?  Let me share one technique that I have used to “start over” with a zero box.  The first time I attempted zero inbox I first sorted my inbox by date.  I created a folder called “inbox prior to xxxx” (ie, prior to this year). I then moved all emails fitting that criterion into that folder.  I then ignored that folder going forward.  If there were emails there that I truly still needed, they would turn up in a search at some point.  Then I could move that email to a proper folder for filing, or deal with it and delete.  Now my inbox has only the current year emails.  If this is still a massive number, you could repeat the process, creating quarterly folders and then only working thru one quarter at a time, starting with the most recent.  Schedule yourself a half hour several afternoons a week to sort out those more recent emails and clear them out so that you are left with the one prior years folder.  This chunking method can allow you to make a “fresh start” on the Zero Inbox.

Automatic Sorting of Emails:

Another technique that offers a valuable alternative to the overflowing inbox is using folders, tags, rules and filters to organize emails.  People who have been working with the Inbox Zero method have already begun making a few folders.  Now your own personal preference comes into play.  How do you think? I find it very productive to have a larger number of folders that are nested and arranged by topic.  This gives me a bird’s eye view of my information and I can locate information quickly.  Other people become bogged down with trying to develop a folder scheme and then debating over where each email should go.  Use trial and error and some self-understanding of how you work most comfortably to choose the method that works best for you.  Regardless of your choices, understanding the technical capabilities of your email system and how foldering/tagging and filters work is important.   If you haven’t used filters yet, you are missing out on a powerful way to jump-start your daily email sorting.

You already have one major filter that came with your email system, even though you might not think of it as such.  Email systems have become much more sophisticated in recognizing spam and automatically rout spam emails to a SPAM folder.  You never have to see or sort these emails because the email system has already done it for you.  Filters that you create can be equally powerful allies in presorting certain emails.  Perhaps you’d like a “Reading Bin” filter that sent a predefined group of email addresses to a folder for reading later.  This might be useful for listserv emails, university newsletters, etc.  Once you then schedule a time once or twice a week to scan through this folder, you have successfully removed a large block of “noise” and time-diverting temptation from your daily schedule.  In our Selected Readings section, I have identified links to tutorials on how to create filters for several of the most popular email systems.

In addition to creating your own filters, there are also several applications available on the web that will create categories of filters and prefilter your email for you.  ActiveInbox is specifically designed to work with Gmail, and comes with both a free, and a paid version that has additional features.  OtherInbox offers an organizer that works on Gmail, Yahoo mail, Hotmail and AOL platforms.  I have been experimenting with this latter service and it has some positives and some negatives.  I plan to publish a Tuesday Tool Tip next week describing my experiences with this tool in depth.

As with all of the tools and techniques that we will discuss in this series, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.  Our goal is to provide some alternatives and to encourage people to think about their situations and needs.  What might be a perfectly good answer for private email accounts might not be appropriate for work accounts or vise versa.

For Further Exploration and Insight:

  1. The author of the Getting Things Done: My Experiences using GTD” blog has a post entitled “Evolution of my email setup”  Read this article and write a short accounting of how you would describe your email evolution. Are you a slave to your inbox?
  2. Investigate the tutorials / help sections for your particular email system.  I’ve provided links to several systems in the Selected Reading section below.  Spend a little time and experiment with creating a filter for a category of emails that you want to read but don’t want to interrupt you every day when they arrive. Add an appointment to your calendar to remind you to review that filtered folder at another specified time.
  3. Explore the Inbox Zero resources.  Is Merlin Mann’s technique something you would like to try? Think about ways to chunk the initial setup process to make it more doable for you and your email.
  4. Share!  What helpful hints, techniques, or articles/blog posts would you like to share with the rest of us?

Selected Readings:

General articles on email overload:

Camargo, M.R. (2008). “A grounded theory study of the relationship between e-mail and burnout ” Information Research13(4) paper 383. [Available at]

Whittaker S. & Sidner C. (1996). E-mail overload: exploring personal information management of e-mail. In S. Kiesler, (Ed.) Culture of the Internet. (pp. 276-295). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Ducheneaut, N.B. & Bellotti, V. (2001). E-mail as habitat. An exploration of embedded personal information managementACM Interactions8(3), 30-38. Retrieved July 20, 2004, from

Inbox Zero:

The Inbox Zero Portal:  This portal contains links to the video of Merlin Mann’s original Google Tech Talk from July 23, 2007 on Inbox Zero and also links to his Inbox Zero blog post series:

If you have a Gmail account, you can experiment with the Inbox Zero method by playing Baydin’s Email Game program. : 7 blog posts discussing one person’s process of converting to the  inbox zero method:  Days 5 &6 in particular discuss GMAIL filters in detail.

 Filters, Folders, Tags, Rules, etc Tutorials and Guides:


 Google: (Filters, labels)

Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail:



Making Sense of email overload: conversations & activity streams- Zimbra 8:

Organizing Emails: Folders, Filters and Tags in Zimbra:

Zimbra Video Tutorials:


Calendar Image courtesy of ammer/


Print Friendly, PDF & Email