The Blog.

Is Inbox Zero yesterday’s news?

16 Jan 2017 | Clarity & Focus, Communication

Someone suggested to me a while ago that inbox zero is a fool’s errand. That there is so much streaming in, it’s impossible to stem or control the flow, so we might as well let it flow past.

She spoke of colleagues who would sit with their phones in meetings, desperately trying to swipe their way to zero. And the futility and sheer un-productivity of being a slave to your email.

You know what, she’s right.

Email is not your job. It’s one of tools involved in your job – and more often than not, it’s wielded in a way that does more damage than good.

If the quest for Inbox Zero has you constantly checking and swiping, the chances are you’re not doing your job. The job that requires your thoughtful attention – the thinking, the negotiating, the inventing, the making, the problem solving and the relationship building. If you’re constantly distracted with checking and swiping, then yes Inbox Zero is a fool’s errand.

So what’s the alternative?

1. Give up on email altogether. Delete your account. Tell your colleagues to call instead, or come see you in person.

Actually I had a delegate once whose boss told him he was only ever allowed to send her one email per day. He started printing off his emails to put on her desk. The truth is, email overload isn’t just a tools problem. It’s a behaviour problem. Even if you can remove the tool altogether (and let’s face it, not many of us can get away with that) the problem will just find another channel to inhabit. Slack overload, or open office hell, anyone?*

2. Go fishing. Treat your inbox like a fast flowing river that you visit regularly to fish out the things you need to pay attention to. Accept you won’t get through everything. Be ok with what you don’t manage to catch. Try not to wade in too deep so you don’t get swept away.

I know one or two people who appear to have made this work. They seem to have perfected the knack of dipping into their inbox to retrieve just what they need to. Most other people though find they get swept away by the river. The fish are all over the place they can’t choose which one to pick. They get lost diving in, trying to find that fish they could have sworn they spotted two days ago. They get caught up in the undercurrents, find themselves swimming round in circles. Or worse, they find the river goes right through their front door – and they’re living in it rather than fishing from it.

Let’s face it, if you find yourself scrolling up and down, more often than not, trying to find or figure out what you need to pay attention to, it’s probably a sign that your system isn’t working.

3. Learn the true inbox zero techniques of a Productivity Ninja.

A Ninja takes a ruthless and unorthodox approach to email, separating out thinking from doing and the wheat from the chaff.

A Ninja is weapon-savvy enough to know how to make the tools do the work so they don’t have to.

A Ninja can and does switch off from email – often – and returns from holiday without email dread.

A Ninja sets clear expectations and lives up to them – emailing a Ninja is a pleasantly straightforward experience.

A Ninja is confident – not obsessed – about getting their inbox to zero.

Want to learn how to do email like a Productivity Ninja? Join me in the next Inbox to Zero challenge.


  1. Sue Steel

    Thank you Grace. As always you are so encouraging! I spent some time last spring working on your productivity ideas, and some of Graham Alcott’s Ninja techniques, but seven months into a new post there isn’t the time to keep my mailbox at zero.
    But I have learned to be more selective about where I give my attention, and find the simple trick of filtering my Inbox by Unread helps me not to miss the important stuff, even though I’m now running two work email boxes.
    One thing I still haven’t mastered though is making the time to look at all the folders where I’ve moved stuff that does require attention, but at least if I’m dealing with one topic I’ve got most of the unread emails in that folder waiting for me.

    • Grace Marshall

      Thanks for sharing your experience Sue. You’re absolutely right in being selective with your attention – it’s incredible how much ‘fake work’ there can be lying in wait in your inbox. The trick with folders is if you put things in folders in order to pay attention to them, you need to train your attention away from defaulting to your inbox. The easiest way to do this is to treat your inbox like a real inbox – like the doormat where your post lands – just for collecting new stuff, waiting for you to filter. That way, you’ll know that the real work is in the processing folders.

Image if author Grace Marshall

About Grace

I coach, train, write and speak on productivity. I help people adopt new ways of working and thinking about their work to replace stress, overwhelm and frustration with success, sanity and satisfaction.

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