Why “Inbox Zero” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

Inbox Zero

In the last few years everyone has become obsessed with the concept of Inbox Zero.

Inbox Zero is exactly what it sounds like, to have zero emails in your inbox.

As if somehow seeing the message “there are no more messages to read” means you’ve accomplished everything you could possibly accomplish, and now you can give yourself a pat on the back, and finally sit guilt free on the beach with a cocktail in your hand.

Here is what we didn’t consider…

“Inbox Zero” does NOT mean you actually accomplished the things you NEEDED to accomplish.

As humans we’d rather deal with the small unimportant requests (these tend to be things that aren’t moving the needle) so we can avoid facing the larger tasks we might not be ready, or care to handle.

We’re conditioning ourselves to take pride in putting out these “little fires” because it feels good. It makes us feel like we’ve accomplished something when there is nothing left to handle in our inbox.

Don’t get me wrong… the obsessive part of my brain still gets tremendous satisfaction from seeing ZERO messages in my inbox. I even dedicate the second half of Thursdays to allow myself to be in “Inbox Zero Mode” where its ok to obsess with my inbox, because at some point I do have to answer those emails.

However instead of focusing on getting your inbox to zero messages… instead start the day by asking yourself… “What are the most important things I need to accomplish today?”

Keep it simple. Start with writing down the 2–3 most important things you need to move the needle on.

These should be the bigger picture things that perhaps you’ve been putting off because you don’t quite know where, or how to get started.

Days quickly become full of distractions, urgent requests, meetings etc. By writing down the 2–3 most important things you’re trying to accomplish you’ve created a guiding north star to help you stay on track.

If you haven’t used the tool Boomerang, it’s a lifesaver. They recently released a feature which allows you to “pause” your inbox to help eliminate those distracting pings throughout the day.

Follow this framework to help you stay on track:

Write out your 2–3 most important things BEFORE you get started with your day. I tend to think through this on my commute to work in the morning (before I even think about opening up facebook or Instagram) though the evening before is even better

  • Don’t try to write out the 10 most important things. Stick to 2–3 as this is much more manageable
  • The act of writing clarifies thought so don’t just think about the tasks, actually take the 3 minutes to write or type them out
  • Don’t feel guilty if you don’t accomplish all 3. If you’ve made a good dent on even one task that progress is more valuable than responding to 20 unimportant emails
  • Block out time on your calendar to specifically work towards accomplishing these tasks and put the “pause” on your inbox
  • Find a buddy to help hold you accountable. It could be a close co-worker or friend you can check in with at the end of the day (I haven’t actually done this one but am curious to try)
  • And finally, when you do accomplish these important tasks give yourself some recognition for a job well done

Now you can finally stop feeling guilty about not being at Inbox Zero, and start working towards the important tasks that will help you move the needle on the things that really matter.


Roya Sabeti creates content for the Galvanize Community and shares stories on startup lessons, founders, tech resources and tools to help founders learn and grow their companies. When she’s not writing you can find her practicing circus arts or creating unique experiences for teams. You can find more of her writing here.