Inbox Zero: No hype, just a clever step towards efficiency.

Inbox zero, a term coined by Merlin Mann of, refers to the state where your inbox is completely empty, implying that you’ve in some or other way taken care of all of the emails in there. Due to the increasing volume and real-time nature of email, some have claimed that inbox zero is not practical, that one should not waste one’s time trying to attain or maintain it, and that it is essentially a hype. This opinion is reflected by the fact that many people use their inboxes as complicated todo lists.

inbox - by Nigel Mykura [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

In spite of managing multiple email addresses over two high-volume inboxes, working in an environment where email is considered to be the primary form of communication and by the nature of that work having to have continuous in-depth email contact with numerous persons in parallel, I would like to make the case for attaining and maintaining inbox zero.

In this scenario, you process new emails at regular intervals (this could be once, or a few times per day), reading each email, deleting if it’s not relevant, processing it immediately if that’s possible in a few minutes (do), delegating it if it’s meant for someone else, or extracting actionable tasks from it and putting them in your todo system (defer). My reasons for advocating this are all pragmatic, and boil down to the observation that having no email in your inbox is the best way to deal efficiently with all the work that incoming email represents:

  1. Your mailbox was not designed to take care of deadlines, priorities and ordering. In contrast, most good todo systems are. In a todo system, you have much more flexibility, and are in fact encouraged to make use of this flexibility, in deciding which tasks will get processed when, how urgent they are and how important they are. Even the best mail systems are woefully inadequate in this regard. Even more simply put, emails are not exactly the same as tasks.
  2. With email, the sender of the email obviously determines the subject and content of the email. There are no real rules for this. This is obviously fine for email, but it’s completely silly for tasks. Each email potentially represents a number of different tasks, all of them hidden in the free-form text of the email. In a task system, these emails have been broken down, by you, into a to-the-point description of the actual activities that you need to undertake to address the request of the email sender. It makes a lot more sense that you formulate your planned actions, instead of a group of miscellaneous email senders.
  3. Related to the previous reason: Every morning as you’re scanning through your inbox, you’re wasting time re-scanning the emails from the days before, re-analyzing each email, possibly re-stressing at the contents and re-remembering what it was that you needed to do to in response. If these had been broken down and put into your task system, you would waste no unnecessary time again spending mental energy on them.
  4. It’s somehow less daunting when you open your email to find 10 completely new emails in an otherwise empty inbox, than it is to find those same 10 emails added to the 100 that you already had in there.

It certainly takes time keeping one’s inbox empty, but there are significant overall savings to be made in terms of personal efficiency, especially in terms of the time that can now be spent on the more important things, instead of something that’s been fished from an overfull inbox. In order to maximize this advantage, email processing itself should be performed as quickly as possible. What helps greatly is trying to make the per-email delete, do, delegate, defer decision as quickly as possible.

We would love to hear about your email-handling experiences and strategy in the comments!

Why am I not in a pomodoro?

When you combine Getting Things Done (GTD) with the Pomodoro Technique (PT), the result is super hero productivity. PT entails that you work in 25 minute blocks of ultimate focus, referred to as pomodoros, each followed by 5 minutes of ultimate goofing off. After every 4 pomodoros, you get to take a longer break. Pomodoro people tend to use some form of kitchen timer (often in the form of a red tomato), or software such as the Focus Booster, and they tend to be at least three times as productive. 🙂

How can a technique named after something this red and tasty not be fantastic?

Whatever the case may be, we’re great fans of the technique and as a rule combine it with our GTD implementation. We do sometimes refer to the pomodoros as “work units”, as this is sometimes easier to explain to management. One might think that 25 minutes is quite short, but most people are generally quite amazed by the high level of focus that can be maintained during this period. The 5 minute break is almost like spending time under the shower: Deliberately goofing off and not thinking about the problem at hand often allows solutions and really good ideas to bubble up spontaneously from one’s sub-conscious.

Besides convincing you of the benefits of PT, the main message of this post to those of you already applying PT, is the following: At any time during the (work) day, if you’re not in a pomodoro or in the short break between pomodoros, you should ask yourself this question: Why am I not in a pomodoro?

In other words, one should either have a really good reason for this, or immediately start that new pomodoro. We noticed in ourselves,before we became TimeScapers of course :), and in other practitioners that people sometimes operate OOP (out-of-pomodoro) because they think that the activity doesn’t fit, for example mail processing or some other miscellaneous small action. Our advice is ABP: Always Be Pomodoroing. The risk with working OOP is that it can spiral out of control, breaking the whole PT focus-zone/goofing-off rhythm, and this is a productivity killer. Don’t fool yourself: You can and should always define a pomodoro.

Let us know in the comments what your experience is with this phenomenon, or if you’d just like to chat about PT in general.

The micro morning planning session

GTD considers the daily review to be an important component of effective time management. Here at TimeScapers, we agree strongly with this sentiment, although we prefer to implement this as the micro morning planning session. This is the very first thing that you should do when starting at work, and if done well, helps to ensure a productive and especially effective day.

Planning close-up

You will notice that if you arrive at work and immediately open your email, your day can easily turn into a purely reactive one, where you find yourself spending the most of your time simply trying to work away all the emails in your inbox. If you think about it, this means that you allow other people, the mostly well-intentioned senders of the emails that face you, to determine your daily activities, instead of yourself.

Instead of this, we recommend that you take 10 minutes to plan the activities you will undertake. In the first few minutes, take some time to think about the projects that are really important, and not necessarily urgent, to you. These are the projects that really create value, for example things that will help you advance your career. Write down three to four of these tasks in your daily journal document (you have one of those right?) that will help you to advance the important projects.

Next, open up your todo list and add the tasks to your list that are urgent, i.e. those things that really need attention today, for example due to imminent deadlines. These tasks should of course be completed on time, but do note that there is often a difference between important and urgent. The former generally creates more value, the latter is mostly damage control.

Finally, and you might even postpone this until after a few hours, open your email and check for any really urgent matters. These can be added to your list of tasks for the day. We recommend that you postpone your real email processing (that is where you turn emails into tasks that can be inserted into your todo system) until about mid-day. The morning check is purely for emergencies.

Following this procedure, you will start your day working on a well-balanced list of tasks that will ensure that you not only take care of urgent matters, but that you also work an advancing the far more important big picture. This is an important step in applying your long-term vision to your work day.

Let us know what you think in the comments!