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Inbox Zero in electronic mail management - a productive element of the GTD methodology

There is an open laptop, smartphone and mug on the desk.  The screen shows a missed email

Despite the growing number of various tools for information exchange, an e-mail still remains the basic communication channel in companies and for individuals. Are we able to get rid of a daily view of 50 or 100 messages, which we see after opening the mailbox? I doubt it. This image often causes stress and anxiety in us. If you haven't used any e-mail management system so far, then the "Inbox Zero" method, derived from the productive methodology of "Getting Things Done" by David Allen, can be very effective in controlling email chaos.

How does Inbox Zero work?

The key principle of the Inbox Zero method, i.e. electronic mail management, is based on the assumption that the Inbox stores e-mails only TEMPORARILY and ultimately they will be transferred to GTD (Getting Things Done) folders. Received emails remain in the Inbox only until you have time to analyze them and decide to which GTD folder they should be moved. This action will quickly lead to a state in which you know exactly what is most important, what is valuable to keep, and your Inbox will become empty.

The first step to launch the Inbox Zero method is to create a GTD folder structure in your mailbox. For people starting this method, I encourage you to first create the simplest structure, consisting of three folders: "@ Action", "@ Waiting", "@ Taken", which will spread emails from the Inbox. It's worth prefixing GTD folder's names with a special character (e.g. "@" or "#") so that they sort from the top in the email program.

The process of processing messages in Inbox Zero

Statistically, the average office worker interrupts work about 11 times an hour to check and respond to emails (Data according to a report published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information). It takes about 20 minutes to get back to the state of being focused and email programs "pre-set" checking mail on the server every 5-10 minutes. The cost of “email checking” during work is estimated at around $ 600 billion a year in the US.

Instead of constantly monitoring new mail notifications, a much better way to manage your work time, attention and energy are through the scheduled Inbox processing process. This should be pre-defined and placed on the day's schedule, e.g. private messages are checked in the morning, noon and evening. If you work as a manager and your work requires practically constant acceptance of various applications and making decisions - even in such circumstances, you must stop the incoming of new messages by turning off automatic mail receiving every few minutes. In this situation, it is recommended to set up mail checking once an hour.

For very busy, overworked people, it is recommended to work in hourly intervals divided into 45 minutes of work and 15 minutes break allowing you to switch to another type of task, e.g. you can check your e-mail during this time.

The process of Inbox processing and email management came down to the fact that you will need to identify and make decisions for each email in Inbox. You should define what it is, what it means and what to do with it, after which you should put it in one of three GTD folders.


"@ Action" - here all emails about which you have decided that you should devote time for them and continue exchanging correspondence.

"@ Pending" - messages that have already been processed in the "@ Action" folder, for which you are waiting for a reply from others.

"@ Done" - here all processed emails and materials that do not require any further action, but may contain potentially useful information.

To sum up – PROCESSING the Inbox does not mean that you have dealt with all matters. It means that you deleted what you could, archived what you wanted to keep, transferred all e-mails regarding pending matters and those requiring action. Now the subject of your attention will be the "@ Action" folder – here are all the emails that you decided that they need some action.

It's likely that you won't always be able to do all the things in the "@ Action" folder in one day. If you receive a very large number of emails, then prioritizing emails should be used in the "@ Action" folder. E.g. the category mechanism in MS Outlook is perfect for this. If after a day of work in the Inbox folder you have ZERO emails, then congratulations. The Inbox Zero method works very well.

Advantages of managing emails

Most people use their email inbox as a place to review issues that are still in demand, often requiring urgent action, and to store reference materials and even garbage. It's a practice that instantly overpowers the mind. EVERY TIME when looking at the Inbox inbox, you need to evaluate all its content, in the old system, every look at Inbox is a distraction.

Thanks to EMPTYING Inbox to ZERO you can focus on tasks and reduce the stress associated with panic browsing of many e-mails by searching for the most important ones. If all emails have been analyzed and broken down into GTD folders, note - now you can say exactly how many things you have in mind!

Inbox Zero is a universal GTD method of organizing emails for use in any email program. Depending on the number of emails, you can perform a more or less extensive implementation of GTD temporary folders.

In practice, the proposed method will allow you to throw out of all Inbox emails from your Inbox, which has many benefits:

  • provides information on the number of cases to handle
  • releases you from having to search for things to do
  • relieves from the need to remember about matters to be dealt with
  • makes us control matters on a regular basis

The key to a successful implementation of the Inbox Zero method is to create a habit of regularly processing your Inbox. It requires some time. Statistically, it takes 66 days to create a habit, but after 18 days the first automatic habits will appear. These conditions should be borne in mind, because such a process may not work fully effectively overnight, and its effects may come much later.

It is worth to mention, using this method requires investing additional time, 2-5 seconds needed to make a decision for each message in the Inbox. It also requires daily regularity from you. However, I think that it is the best way to manage e-mails and maintain a lasting order.


Inbox Zero is a very productive element of the "Getting Things Done" methodology, which can be implemented in a few minutes. It gives sensational and immediate results. If you haven’t had any system to work with your e-mail so far, I encourage you to try this method. A very important aspect is also the awareness that the Inbox does not take control over us, which is why it does not distract, does not constantly take our time, does not reduce our productivity. Putting this method into practice gives you a sense of control - I decide how and when I will deal with it! For people receiving hundreds of emails per day, this can be a huge improvement in email management.

Personal productivity should be seen as the ability to do the right things at the right time - implementing only one element of the GTD methodology, which is Inbox Zero, will allow you to raise your personal productivity to a much higher level.

People interested in personal productivity, task organization or e-mail management I refer to the best source of knowledge on this subject, to David Allen's book "Getting Things Done". It’s describing how to tactically manage task management - learn more elements of the entire GTD process will give you greater efficiency and optimization of daily activities.

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