Letter with a "0" representing an empty email inbox
Marie Maerz/Shutterstock

Inbox Zero is a staple of digital productivity advice. “Achieving Inbox Zero” is the knowledge worker’s equivalent of “reaching enlightenment.” But Inbox Zero doesn’t mean having an empty inbox—it’s all about reducing the stress of email.

Why Inbox Zero Matters

Let’s deal with the second part of the question first: Why should you care what Inbox Zero is?

If you’ve got any interest in taming your inbox or more generally in being efficient and productive, Inbox Zero is something you need to know about. Inbox Zero is a Big Thing that has been around since 2006. It’s been the subject of many presentations and even books.

Searching for Inbox Zero brings back 108 million search results in Google, and it will continue to be one of the cultural touchstones for productivity for a very long time to come—even as it fades in and out of fashion. If you’ve got any interest at all in productivity, it’s worth knowing about. And hey, it might help you!

RELATED: Forget Inbox Zero: Use OHIO to Triage Your Emails Instead

What Is Inbox Zero?

Inbox Zero is a productivity philosophy about dealing with a constant, life-long stream of email. It was first expressed by Merlin Mann on his 43Folders site, which is currently (and hopefully temporarily) unavailable but is mirrored by the Internet Archive. Inbox Zero was so popular that a separate site—InboxZero.com—was created to hold Mann’s Inbox Zero articles. That site is also currently unavailable but is mirrored on archive.org as well.

There are ten articles in the Inbox Zero series, most of which deal with techniques for handling email efficiently. They’re interesting and useful, and we encourage you to read them if you haven’t before.

But the heart of Inbox Zero is not these practical tips. It’s not even about having zero emails in your inbox, despite the name.

Inbox Zero Isn’t About Having an Empty Inbox

If you assumed “Inbox Zero” meant having zero emails in your inbox, don’t worry because you’re not alone. We searched the web for “What is Inbox Zero?” and found many websites that say Inbox Zero is all about having an empty inbox.

They are all incorrect.

The whole point of Inbox Zero is that email is a never-ending stream. An empty inbox is only ever temporary, so making an empty inbox your target is a fool’s errand. You’re at the mercy of other people sending you mail. The only certain way to have an empty inbox is to block all email, which is functionally the same as not having an inbox at all.

Or, to keep your inbox at zero, you might have to watch it like a hawk and deal with each email the instant it comes in.

This is unrealistic.

Instead, the Inbox Zero philosophy assumes that your inbox is a source of stress. Inbox Zero seeks to make it less stressful and to take up as little of your focus as possible. That’s why all the practical tips are about making it easier to deal with your email and automating things.

Here’s what Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero website—now sadly offline but still available in archived form—said about Inbox Zero:

It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life. That “zero?” It’s not how many messages are in your inbox—it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.

Again, Inbox Zero is not about how many messages are in your inbox. That quote is from Merlin Mann himself, and you can’t get more authoritative than that.

How to Achieve Inbox Zero

Ultimately, like all good philosophies, Inbox Zero is an attitude and a state of mind rather than a set of specific actions. There’s no particular set of steps for achieving Inbox Zero any more than there is for attaining enlightenment.

That’s not to say that following the practical tips Mann gives you for dealing with your mail won’t end up with you having a literally empty inbox—far from it! For most people, the least stressful inbox is an empty inbox, and more power to you if you’ve managed it. But tomorrow it will have mail in it again.

Mann suggests practical actions like setting filters, using canned responses, and moving mail to different folders as part of a methodology for lowering the stress email can cause. An empty inbox is merely a potential side-effect of this methodology, not the ultimate aim.

The ultimate aim is that your inbox isn’t a source of stress.

So, if you ever hear people saying that Inbox Zero is unrealistic or unachievable, you can be sure they haven’t understood it. It’s not about having no emails. It’s about having no stress from emails.

That’s why we recommend using OHIO (Only Handle It Once) to triage your emails. Rather than focusing on a nebulous goal of “Inbox Zero”—something that is often misinterpreted—only handling emails once will save you time and stress. Focusing on OHIO will bring you closer to the actual philosophy of Inbox Zero.

RELATED: Forget Inbox Zero: Use OHIO to Triage Your Emails Instead

Rob Woodgate Rob Woodgate
Rob Woodgate is a writer and IT consultant with nearly 20 years of experience across the private and public sectors. He's also worked as a trainer, technical support person, delivery manager, system administrator, and in other roles that involve getting people and technology to work together.
Read Full Bio »