Why Inbox Zero Is a Waste of Time and What You Should Do Instead

May 14, 2020

By Andrew Eitelbach

solar22/Getty Images

Color codes. Rule automations. Self CCs. Folders within folders within folders. The all mighty flag.

I’ve tried a dozen systems, methods, and cheats for organizing my inbox.

The most effective tactic I ever found for getting me down to inbox zero — that fabled status of an empty inbox, whispered about in pre-meeting chatter and conference coffee breaks — also took me the most time to manage. And for what?

My inbox looked glorious when empty, yes. But it didn’t help me get work done, and a system that doesn’t make work easier or help improve productivity is no system at all.

And boy oh boy could we use better systems right about now.

According to a recent survey by Eagle Hill Consulting, U.S. employees are feeling less engaged, less productive, and less positive about their careers thanks to COVID-19. Nearly half (45 percent) feel burnt out, the survey found. Of those who feel burnt out, 45 percent say it’s caused by their workloads; 21 percent say it’s from not having the right tools and technology to do their work.

Respondents in Adobe’s 2019 annual study of email usage said that they spend about three hours a day checking work email (up 11 minutes from 2018). Only 46 percent said they are able to clear out their inboxes.

At a time when many employees are working three hours longer than usual because of the pandemic, now is as good a time as any for a reminder that there’s a difference between work that is productive and work that only feels productive.

As the lead editor for ANA Newsstand, I have dozens of stories in development at any given time. I need a comprehensive method for organizing my email so I can track what’s in the flurry of messages volleying between teammates, freelancers, sources, and other parties.

I’m busy — you probably are too — and I don’t have time to spend shuffling emails into tidy folders or applying color codes that only make sense to me. So here’s how I organize my emails: I don’t.

Let me explain.


The Secret Code to Email Organization

Inbox zero is a nice idea, but it’s unrealistic to think that an empty inbox is a sign of being productive. (What it is a sign of, in my opinion, is too much time spent organizing and not enough time actually being productive.)

Really, all one needs are two folders — the inbox and sent folder — and a system for finding out what’s inside. Enter: the secret code.

Every project my team and I work on has a code, an alphanumeric string that acts as a unique identifier. On your team it might be called a job code or a ticket number. We call it a text ID.

We use the text ID to name everything having to do with an upcoming article: every assignment letter, source file, creative asset, and invoice. The text ID becomes the name of the project folder on the server, and we use the text ID in Trello, our project management tool, to track an article’s progress through production.

Naming everything with the text ID as the root of the filename ensures we know, for example, which image goes with which story. It also makes it easy to find what we’re looking for regardless of where we are looking, whether that's on the server, in Trello, in Microsoft Teams — or in email.


Search and Ye Shall Find

When I send correspondence about an article, I add the text ID to the subject line. If someone changes my subject line when they respond, I change it right back.

Because the text ID is specific to a particular article, I now have a unique term to use in searching my inbox or sent folder for anything to do with that article.

I don’t have to spend any time moving emails around, creating automation rules to file them, or adding color-coded flags. If I need to find something, I simply let the search function do the work.

Adding other preset elements to the subject line in addition to the text ID makes finding that particular piece of correspondence all the easier later on.

If an email doesn’t have to do with a particular project, or when I’m dealing with a third-party contributor for whom the text ID would be a nonsensical jumble of gobbledygook, I use another term as the secret code. In the case of third-party contributors, for instance, I trade in the text ID for the date of publication.

As long as the code is a unique one, the system holds up.


Why This Rocks My Inbox

Using a secret code in my subject lines means I don’t have to worry about clearing out my inbox. In fact, to ensure I can find what I need when I need it, I hardly delete anything at all (with the big fat exception of newsletters I’ve finished reading or those cold-call style sales messages to which I will never, ever respond. Ever).

To keep track of what needs my attention, I think of my inbox as containing two kinds of email: The kind I’ve dealt with and the kind I haven’t.

If I haven’t dealt with an email yet — even if it’s one I’ve read — I simply keep it marked as unread, and I use the badge counter on the app icon as a gauge. The smaller the number, the better I’m doing at keeping up with my correspondence.

As long as the number is low, it doesn’t matter how many emails are actually sitting in my inbox; the only ones I need to worry about are the unread ones.


Circling Back

With so many of us working from home at such a challenging time, and office life poised to change in extreme ways once we return, it’s safe to say that things are not normal.

In order to adapt, marketers need practical solutions for improving efficiencies and focusing their time on things that actually matter. In terms of email, chasing the fallacy of inbox zero won’t help — but a simple, dependable, oh-so-easy approach just might.

Have a system that works for you? Leave a comment below or send me an email at aeitelbach@ana.net.

comments (1)

Duke Fanelli

May 27, 2020 8:30am ET

Brilliant and simple idea. Thanks for sharing.

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