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7 Reasons to Keep the Inbox Empty

Friday, March 28, 2014 - 07:55

Guest post by Steuart Snooks

These days, with ever-increasing volumes of email being sent and received, most of us are leaving more and more emails in the inbox. Either we don’t have the time to address them all, or don’t know quite how to make a decision on the action required… so we just leave them sitting in the inbox.

This post will explain the 7 best reasons for keeping your inbox empty how a clear inbox can help you be more organised, productive and happy at work.

1. An overloaded inbox causes stress

The inbox is often filled with a backlog of weeks or months of old work yet to be accomplished, messages that need a reply (including an apology for being so tardy) and irrelevant messages that have to be weeded out. Even if none of the emails require any action, they are still ‘unfinished business’, and require filing or deleting at some point in the future.

This backlog of unfinished email creates a ‘psychological drag’ that slows down our mental clarity and focus. Many have feelings of being overwhelmed, guilty and ‘out-of-control’. There’s often a nagging, subconscious sense that you’re not keeping up with everything, that your work is never quite up-to-date, and that you’re constantly playing catch-up.

In a 2010 Harris Interactive survey, 94% of people said the most amount of email they can receive before feeling some degree of stress is 50 messages. So, how many are sitting in your inbox right now?

2. Clearing your inbox avoids multiple handling of emails

One of the biggest productivity problems with email is that we read the same email message 2, 3, 5 or even 10 times BEFORE we take action on it! Even then, the message is still often left in the inbox.

As a result, it now takes longer to reply to an incoming email, since so many other messages are already in the inbox awaiting replies. This backlog of email also means it takes longer to find a specific message. Sorting may not help much, since something like a ‘sort by sender’ may show numerous other, older messages sent by the same person, also sitting in the inbox.

But your time is far too limited and valuable to ever look at any new message more than once! An empty inbox, achieved by learning how to handle each message only once, allows you to keep up with your workload, meet deadlines and saves you having to come in early, work through lunch, stay back late or use weekends to catch up with all your email.

3. Things are not lost or forgotten

It’s easy to forget important actions and tasks when they’re buried amongst so many other messages in your inbox.

When you do finally get around to addressing them, it is usually under time pressure with a deadline looming (or already past). At best, important emails will require reminders; at worst, they will not get done (thereby negating any benefit of using email for that task).

Make a decision on each new email, then move it out of the inbox to a more appropriate place. This is a great way to rely upon your system, rather than your memory, to keep track of all the tasks and activities you have to keep up with.

4. The inbox is NOT your to-do list

The inbox is NOT a to-do or task list – email delivers tasks.

The aim of visiting the inbox is to process email; to make decisions, not necessarily to respond to each email. The inbox is simply a holding place for newly arrived messages. It should be visited on a regular (but not constant) basis with the sole aim of making decisions – sifting, sorting and prioritising the latest batch of incoming messages.

Put a time limit on how long you spend going through your inbox. Don’t get caught up reading articles or viewing videos etc. Best practice shows that for most people in most roles, 3 or 4 scheduled blocks of 30 minutes each day should be more than enough to turn all your email around every 24 hours.

5. Clearing your inbox avoids procrastination and indecision

A cluttered inbox results from (and also leads to) a lack of decision-making and procrastination. When faced with an overwhelming number of decisions to make we tend to procrastinate and make no decision at all.

We need to learn to make a decision the first (and only time) we look at an email. Once you realise there is only ever one of four possible decisions needed for each new message, it becomes much easier to make a decision and then action the email, moving it out of the inbox.

Your time is too valuable to waste on procrastination!

6. You won’t constantly be interrupted by new messages

Let’s face it; so much of your work these days arrives via the inbox. And when you have lots of messages sitting in the inbox, you tend to spend large amounts of time based in your inbox.

But being inbox-based makes it very easy to be interrupted by new, incoming email. These interruptions distract you from the task at hand, dilute your focus, fracture your attention and cause you to start multi-tasking (which makes you even more unproductive).

This is made even worse if you also get an alert every time a new message arrives - a ’ding’, the little yellow envelope and/or the pop-up in the bottom corner of the screen.

7. There are more appropriate places to store email messages

One of the biggest reasons we tend to leave messages in the inbox is because we’re not sure where else we can store them. We don’t want to forget them (or lose them) so they are left in the inbox just to be safe, creating lots of clutter and distraction.

However, once a decision is made about where to relocate each email, the inbox is empty again. Every email is now stored in an appropriate location, rather than left to accumulate in the inbox.


Steuart Snooks is the CEO of Solutions for Success and founder of Taming the Email Tiger. As an Email Strategist & Productivity Expert, Steuart facilitates AIM’s Effective Email Management course in Melbourne.