Why inbox zero isn’t always the best solution

Shutterstock

Do your emails overwhelm you at work?

If so, you aren’t alone. In fact, the good chunk of our office time consists of sorting through emails. According to a study from the McKinsey Global Institute, people spend on average over one-fourth of their time dealing with just their emails alone.

To make matters worse, the study also found that it will take you approximately 90 seconds to return back to the work you were doing before the email interrupting your workflow. Combined, that is a lot of time lost solely to sifting through emails.

The concept of “inbox zero” came about in 2007 to help manage the stress of sorting through work emails. The idea is to keep the inbox near empty – or close to empty – at all times through a series of steps in which you process all of your emails throughout the day to achieve an empty inbox by the end of the day.

While there are many who still follow this approach, some find it to actually be useless.

In an article for Entrpreneur.com, behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely refers to the concept as “structured procrastination”; while it may make you feel like you are achieving something, it ultimately doesn’t do anything.

Although the appeal of having a clean, empty inbox is ideal for many, the concept of inbox zero is somewhat unrealistic. There will always be emails to answer. There are emails that just be saved for future reference. And truthfully, spending your time trying to decipher where to categorize what email to achieve the empty inbox look is extremely time-consuming and tiresome.

So then, what can you do if you want to reduce the stress of emails in your work life?

There are a few ways you can mentally train yourself to stop seeing an overflowing inbox as something “bad.” Rather, it should be viewed as a process, one that will continuously happen every week. Instead of aiming to keep the inbox constantly empty, we should learn to learn how manage it more efficiently.

Prioritize emails by importance or urgency

One of the most important steps is to prioritize which emails require immediate attention and which can wait. Just as you prioritize your work tasks, do the same for your email.

If it isn’t urgent and can wait, then leave it unread or categorize it into another folder. If you can visually see which emails you must answer versus the ones that aren’t as much of a pressing
matter, you will feel less overwhelmed and can return to those emails.

Carve out a chunk of your day to respond

It is important to set aside a time in the day to return to all of the emails you left unanswered. Carving out a scheduled block of time will put you at ease throughout the day knowing that you will get to the emails. Choose what time of day works best for you and commit to it. It may also be helpful to have multiple times throughout the day to do this.

Don’t revisit emails – answer them!

Another tactic is to not have to keep revisiting emails. Often, we open a message and don’t feel like immediately answering it. As a result, it sits there, opened and forgotten. Decide to commit to replying right away to the unanswered message. This way, you don’t have to revisit it later. If you know you can reply right away, it will benefit you later on and will prevent a long list of opened but unanswered emails.

Save the important emails

I don’t know about you, but my work inbox has emails from over a year ago still in it. They contain important information regarding company guidelines, workflow procedures and even the company holiday schedule. There are times where there are pertinent details that just can’t be tossed away, no matter how badly one wants to achieve inbox zero.

Organizing these emails into folders or categories can help manage the clutter and separate the news emails from the old. There are ways to keep what matters to you without having to delete everything in your
folder.

The idea of inbox zero may seem wonderful, but the reality is that we just don’t have time for it. Constantly keeping your inbox empty is a near-impossible task; one that would require more time than it is actually worth. Yes, it will look aesthetically pleasing, but it actually achieves nothing.

Luckily, there are other ways to manage your inbox to create a less cluttered, more organized feel. Instead of trying to reach inbox zero, go for a more realistic tactic. Managing your time and organizing your content is a more constructive approach that will lead you to an email anxiety-free life.