In-Box Zero

Remember merit badges, those embroidered circles used to mark achievement for Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts? Now there is a company that makes merits badges for grown-ups, and there’s one I desperately want to earn: In-Box Zero.

My goal of an empty email in-box is more elusive than live tech support. I crossed into the new year on 1/1/10 with an empty in-box and a zero credit card balance. The credit cards are still paid off, but the in-box currently houses over 500 messages.

I know what’s there. It’s not that I haven’t taken in the content of those 500 messages; I have. Some are offers I wanted to think about, like a class I wanted to attend but wasn’t sure I’d have time for. (I didn’t.) Some are newsletters I haven’t read (and probably never will.) Some are threads of complicated conversations involving several people, conversations in which I am not an active participant but was copied on the messages because someone thought I might be able to contribute or might need to know.

I receive between 80 and 100 emails each day, which based on my non-scientific observations of business people, is about average. I deal promptly with the vast majority. I respond and delete, or I file for later action, or I file for reference. Still, that 3 or 4 percent that I don’t move out of the inbox immediately begins to accumulate, until by mid-year I’m looking at a 500-message surplus. A quick calculation indicated that if I could deal with just three more messages each day, I could have kept the message count to nil. But three more was too many.

The goal of in-box zero is a great goal, but I know that I’m not the only one who struggles with it. How do I know? Two ways: I’ve worked with clients who’ve had tens of thousands of inbox messages they needed to clean out. And whenever someone reaches inbox zero, they’re apt to crow about it. Just this week author and business guru Tim Sanders posted a screen shot of his empty inbox. That’s a measure of how difficult it is to achieve.

Still, I remember how great it felt to have my computer desktop as well-ordered as my physical desktop. I’d like to get back to that happy state. And the causes of my email clutter are the very same things that cause my clients’ physical clutter: deferred decisions, being unclear about what the next action should be, and keeping things I don’t need.

So here’s my mid-year resolution: I’m going to return to inbox zero by the first day of autumn. That means dealing with an extra 5 or 6 messages a day for the next 3 months.

  • I will unsubscribe from newsletters I don’t read; I’ve already canceled three.
  • I’ll make time each week to review those tempting offers and make a firm decision about whether or not I’ll accept them, then either delete the email or sign up and delete.
  • I’ll make time to review any long conversations in which I’m just copied, and either participate or bow out.

And I’ll do the work required to keep the email from accumulating again. Check back to see my progress toward my goal. And if you’d like to join in with a goal of earning your own In-Box Zero badge, state your intention by leaving a comment here.


8 comments so far

  1. Taru Fisher on

    I am chipping away at a gmail inbox with 8905 emails — yes, I said 8905. It boggles the mind. Some days I am so temptedto merely purge the entire thing, but there are some emails I must save for legal reasons. I recently created an email address just for things I read but don not have to respond to. I think it’s helping keep my gmail inbox less full. But with that many emails already in there, it’s very hard to tell.

    Oh, and that doesn’t count the overflowing in boxes at my .mac and — oh, and my yahoo account. I must be an email hoarder ;-(

    I did a blog post about my email, and got a few very helpful responses.

    This merit badge is giving me incentive to really do something about this email issue – thanks, Margaret!

  2. […] Remember merit badges, those embroidered circles used to mark achievement for Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts? Now there is a company that makes merits badges for grown-ups, and there’s one I desperately want to earn: In-Box Zero. My goal of an empty email in-box is more elusive than live tech support. I crossed into the new year … Read More […]

  3. Jeannie Shea on

    A worthy goal! I have a few clients who NEED this! But rather than sort through old e-mail, I’m a big believer in “archiving” the whole lot, and doing a tiny bit better in the future. If you never need to go back to the archive, it can be deleted. In fact, I think it is such a huge waste of time to sort e-mail (most of it) that I archive almost everything. Newer e-mail client programs (Outlook 2007, etc.) have greatly improved the search capability so you can find everything pretty quickly, even from an archived file. Haven’t tested it on Entourage yet (I know you are a Mac user, Margaret), but there are great third party programs that do fine-grained searches on e-mail, documents, whatever. I like Copernic better than Google Desktop.

    • Margaret Lukens on

      Jeannie, I agree about not trying to begin by sorting old stuff. I suggest making a large file — I call it “Quarantine” — and sweeping everything into it. Nothing is lost; it’s not less accessible than it was in the in-box. Then you can start over.

      In my experience habit change can take several tries before it sticks. That’s okay by me. I try to be gentle with myself, and give myself props for the progress well before reaching the goal.

  4. Jeannie Shea on

    And I forgot to mention, for Taru’s benefit: the largeness of my Gmail account bugs me too – even though Google doesn’t care how much e-mail I store. I’ve created Labels to organize it all, but those just annoy me. The real usefulness is Filters, which can take actions for you; applying a label, archiving something so it doesn’t even go in the Inbox, lots of cool stuff. I even forward my Library Pre-Overdue Notices to an account I look at much more frequently, works like a charm! And I forward the Online SF Chronicle to my husband, who likes it. Periodically I search by some phrase, like DNC, or look at a Label, and delete batches.

  5. Terry Prince on

    What a great “merit badge”. I know I have a little happy smile when my email inbox is cleared out. I have all my emails go through gmail so it is great to use labels.

    I always delete the unwanted emails before I start opening any new ones. This way I keep my general archives smaller.

    Using labels is what saves me – especially when I am on occassion indecisive – I have a s/someday label that holds those.

    Once a month, I go through and cull through my general archives – with the “phrase” process that the Jeanie mentions.

    I also spend some “thinking” time every few months, deciding if I want to get off the various lists.

  6. Linda Samuels on

    Loved coming across this post of yours today, especially since I spent the last several days reducing the numbers in my in-box.

    I’m very good at deleting the “junk” emails right away. I like your idea of unsubscribing to those things I never seem to get to. So I’ve been doing that too. I’m also good about responding quickly to the items that need a response.

    I’m being MORE ruthless about what I actually will get to. Trying not to stay in the “land of indecision.” If I’m never going to take action on it, the email gets deleted. There’s just too much information that bombards me daily and I’ve got to make choices so that the clarity about what I do want to do is prominent.

    In addition, I am trying something new. I’ve created a word doc on my computer called “Info I Might Want Someday.” There are many emails that can be routed there. These are items like interesting websites, resources or ideas. I don’t need the entire email, I only a tiny portion. I created categories (made up as needed) and I enter the info as bulleted items. That alone enabled me to delete over 100 emails and I’m not done yet. Woo-whoo!

    Lastly, there are “to do” items of a more immediate nature. For now, those are remaining until I actually DO them. They are my visual reminders.

    Now while I didn’t have thousands of emails, I did have over 160, which is too many for me. It’s a matter of what we’re comfortable with. Like clutter, some of us can tolerate more than others. So my email in-box “clutter tolerance level” is fairly low. But after working on this for the past several days, I’m happy to share that I now have only 86 left.

    Still working, but with some newly laid out rules and processes, my goal is to get one of those “In-Box Zero” merit badges. I LOVE that idea!

    Thanks for your great post. The timing to come across it was fabulous!

  7. Update: In-box zero « New Leaf News on

    […] of Organizing, Following Through, Organizing, Productivity | Tags: Merlin Mann | Back in June I pledged to achieve in-box zero by the first day of autumn, so I owe you, dear readers, an […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: