Zero Inbox Strategy – To Be Or Not To Be ?


I have a zero inbox policy . I read every email I get within a short time of it showing up , respond to the ones that need attention then move them to an archive . I don’t go to bed till I am done . And I have been this way for about 8 years .I don’t let my assistant reply to my emails , although she has access to it .I have the same zero inbox policy on personal email and twitter too . In that aspect , I was “real time” friendly before real time became the new black 🙂

It has its advantages that I can reasonably stay on top of my work , given the high volume of emails I get. In general it has definitely helped me with career success and progression too .

However , there is a big price to pay to keep this habit. And I will be lying if I say I enjoy this habit a lot . A more accurate statement will be that I have high tolerance now 🙂

For starters – it means I stay up late every night , including most weekends . Even on vacations I try to stay up late to finish email some times – which irritates my family to no end . If I don’t – I will never catch up with the back log . I kid you not – I had to once lock my smartphone in a bag and leave the key out of sight to stop looking at email during vacation.

It also means I very rarely write long , well crafted emails . I usually respond in one sentence or two – and it occasionally comes across as harsh or non caring to people who don’t know me . I am however a tad more careful when I email customers – but even there , I stay brief . In general – people need a bit of time to get used to my ultra brief emails with rarely any salutation or signature 🙂 . Thankfully – my boss is also a fan of brief emails .

One lesson I learned early in my career was to not rely on email for all communication . I use chat functionality and phone heavily , and that minimizes the email traffic . I also like to do face to face communication with others whenever possible . On the bad side – you might not have anything documented if memory fails you about a phone call . So for important stuff – I try to send a short summary via email .

I also use a separate email id for Internet stuff that has even a remote chance of spamming me in future . And of course I rarely open that account . If anyone spams me intentionally more than once – I block them . This is especially a problem with personal friends and relatives who will get offended quickly.

With my team, I encourage them to use the phone as much as possible and then just send one email in summary . It doesn’t always work – given I never had the same team working for me for several years at a stretch . So we relearn together periodically 🙂

I also don’t create a complex folder structure for my archive . I trust search more than my organizational skills . However , search is as much an art as a science – so occasionally I get some serious grief . For that matter , I don’t use flags or color coding or anything of that sort . This is probably why I think BI should also largely move to search as primary interface 🙂

Some emails always will fall through the cracks – given my frequent archival . I try to be careful , but I make mistakes . But the good thing is that if it was important – I would get a reminder most of the time . Again, if the email is from a customer – I try to be twice as careful , but of course I occasionally miss those too.

I do let my EA handle my calendar almost exclusively . I am terrible at that – and she is very good with that . So I just follow her lead and will only mess with it if something comes up when she is not working . I refer to her as my life saver .

So for all the good things I get out of having a zero inbox – and all the discipline I follow to keep it that way, there is one thing that I have no control over . Since I respond near real time – it gives the wrong idea to some people that I am “always on”. And some of them will get offended if I read but do not respond quickly at 2 AM . I have tried many different things – but no good scalable solution has been found yet .

So that brings me back to why I wrote this now – is it worth keeping up with zero inbox policy and the stress that comes with it? Or should I relax and let it slide ? That will be something I will think about in 2 weeks time when we leave for an island vacation . Last year when we went to Hawaii is when I decided to quit my job at IBM . I wonder whether I will decide to stop the zero inbox policy this trip . The decision kind of has similar magnitude in my mind 🙂

If any one has any tips, suggestions , wise cracks et al – let me know .

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8 thoughts on “Zero Inbox Strategy – To Be Or Not To Be ?

  1. Good Article! I do the same, but all the emails where I am in CC – get them moved to folder “Misc”. General announcements email get them deleted immediately. For the replies, I use the option of “Delay Delivery” in the outlook and in gmail – we have some extensions. This option is for people, who don’t need the answer immediately and they can wait for reply.

    It’s always better to clear the inbox, rather than looking into same mail again and again(even if it’s for few seconds – that adds up a lot in 5year time frame).

    • Vijay I think these are sound tactics.

      I think responding briefly where possible is a very good thing, I am well known for long emails but have dramatically cut down on those.

      A big thing is to reduce email to only the things that cannot be dealt with on any other medium (IM/Twitter/phone), and yes, to have a separate email addy for newsletter/informational content, forum discussions etc. You’ve already handled that.

      Once you have reduced email to the bare essentials, there is one thing to keep in mind: the more emails you will send, the more you will get. There is a good argument for not sending emails all day long, all you are doing is accelerating the pace of emails returned in kind. 🙂 When the topic is time sensitive, sure, accelerate it, but when not, there is a logic to pacing yourself on replying to topics that are not time-sensitive.

      Other than that I think you have it. Email is still necessary but sometimes a burden even with its asynchronous convenience. Some sensitive topics I’m not willing to cover on email period. That’s another story (privacy/security).

      I’m an “inbox ten” type of guy. I tolerate about ten emails in my inbox, if it looks like a small and manageable group, it’s ok. If not, I pare it down. The 5-10 I leave in are emails I have replied to but are very important topics that involve action items on my part. For me unplugging from email one day a week is a sanity check and I do that as often as I can.

  2. I tend to touch emails only once and have them only for three month. After that they go into an archive which I never touch. Further had the experience to that the archive crashed without any chance to recover it. I think 0 is a great number. As well deleting all emails when you come back and just respond to those who “claim” for an answer. Tends to be highly efficient! Enjoy your vacation!!!!

  3. Very nice blog ! I would say make the decision if you think it can be sustainable. Because people get used to the fact you reply “real time” and if you cannot for any reason it becomes a bigger disappointment. :). I always reply to any mails which has my I’d in the “to” . “Cc”s can wait 🙂

  4. Keeping it brief definitely works. Responding to every email before going to bed makes for a better night sleep and folder structures get too complicated to keep updated (exception: client emails). However, sometimes a response requires more thought than I can give it at that moment and an immediate acknowledgment may be enough. After all email was not designed to be synchronous communication. Long flights make for welcome opportunities to cleanup spammed inboxes. Ignoring email trails until an action is required sometimes helps with peace of mind and workload.

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