The Concept of Inbox Zero

The Concept of Inbox Zero

– Padma Swaroop Mandapaka

Communication is the quintessential aspect of effective leadership and corporate governance. Of all the several forms of communication available, electronic mail or e-mail is the most effective and yet – the most overlooked aspect.

When a project is not closed properly, it can lead to incomplete scope, delayed payments, resource waste, as well as legal consequences. It may also impact the future contracts and delivery-driven sales.

Communication is the quintessential aspect of effective leadership and corporate governance. Of all the several forms of communication available, electronic mail or e-mail is the most effective and yet – the most overlooked aspect.

In our day-to-day professional lives, we receive multiple emails with various levels of priorities. We also receive emails from individuals at various levels of hierarchy in our organisations. With all this happening in a span of few hours, it often becomes a challenge to keep a track of the email inflow and in the process, respond to our emails in a prompt manner.

There could be an email that needs an immediate attention or it could be even be something of lower priority. Often, we are so caught up with our own things that we do not respond to such emails in time, leading to miscommunication. To overcome this challenge, Merlin Mann, an independent writer and speaker, suggests an approach he termed as Inbox Zero – an action-based email. By Zero Inbox he doesn’t mean to clean up our inboxes always. What he does suggest instead is to categorise and organize our emails and, in the process, convert our emails into appropriate actions as quickly as possible.

Every email that we receive is categorized into one of the following four categories:

  • Action Required • Awaiting Response
  • Delegated • Archived

It may not be ideal to advise someone to reply to their emails at the same moment they receive it. But, sometimes, a simple message saying “Received your email – I will get back to you”, acknowledges the sender and is better than no reply at all.

For this to happen in an effective way, one must categorise one’s emails. Each one of us has a different approach on how we categorize or organize our email – this primarily depends on our business needs. I follow a nested approach of classification i.e., folder within a folder. This means that I have a rule applied to an individual sender directed to a specific folder and within that folder, I would probably have sub-folders with rules applied on basis of the subject line.


This folder structure is described in the table below:

   <name of the sender #1>
   <subject line #1>
   <subject line #2>

Now that we discussed in depth about what Inbox Zero is and how it works, let us learn more about some of the best practices of implementing Inbox Zero:

  1. Staying near Inbox Zero
  2. Processing to Zero
  3. Pareto Principle
  4. The email filters and their benefits
  5. Inbox Zero – The action associated
  1. Staying near Inbox Zero

Maintaining Inbox Zero may not be achievable always. It is instead a process through which one tries to attain a phenomenon known as Email Sanity. Techniques such as being selective on receiving emails, laying emphasis on folders and filters, staying away from spam, deciding whether to respond to emails the moment we receive it or at a later stage should help.

  1. Processing to Zero

The more email you have been avoiding to read from your inbox, the more challenging your email processing is going to be. Let us say you have a large number of unread messages in the backlog, the ideal way is to be clear on your judgement on something that best removes your blocks and gets you through the pile with your sanity intact.

  1. The Pareto principle in emails

The Pareto Principle talks about how a small percentage of causes create a large percentage of problems: 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Putting it in an email perspective, it is safe to say that 80% of the email overload is caused by 20% of our emails. This could be subscribing to something, or having multiple emails in the same email thread. 

  1. The email filters and their benefits

Filters and scripts minimize the manual processing we do each day as well as way cut down on unnecessary interruptions to a great extent. The problem arises when we filter too much on the basis such as: “sender” and “subject” or even a nested approach such as “subject within a sender”. This might result in missing something important. Having said that, it all depends on how efficiently one applies filters to emails.

  1. Inbox Zero – The actions associated

David Allen in his book Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress-Free productivity, talks about answering the following questions about every email message that you receive in your inbox.

  1. What does this message mean to me, and why do I care?
  2. What action, if any, does this message require of me?
  3. What’s the most elegant way to close out this message and the nested action it contains?

These questions lay emphasis in identifying the best use of your interest, attention, and time.


Inbox Zero is a process through which one tries to attain email sanity, i.e, organise, schedule, and respond to emails in the most time-efficient manner.

As James Humes says: Communication is the art of leadership, an effective communication paves way to a professional and a healthy work environment.



Getting Things Done – The art of Stress-Free productivity by David Allen