Merlin follows up on Inbox Zero

Merlin Mann back in the days of coined a phrase Inbox Zero to address the topic of email management. 

Over the last number of years the term grew in popularity and became part of the common language. Unfortunately as result of it’s popularity the meaning and purpose behind the Inbox Zero has been twisted to the point of ridicule i.e. your mailbox must be at zero. So just the other day after a great interview with Mike Hurley over at the CMD+Space podcast Merlin wrote a great follow up the Inbox Zero.

Let me share some of the key quotes from Chasing the right zero:

Given that every inbox necessarily represents a source of incompletion in our lives, any potential source of new input that we invite (or even permit) into our world presents a never-ending challenge that we may choose to frequently address, but which we must accept we can never even begin to control.

Inbox Zero is merely a philosophical practice of learning to be parsimonious about which and how many inputs we allow into into our lives—and, then, to responsibly but mindfully tend to those inputs in a way that is never allowed to hinder our personal commitment to doing the work that really matters to us.

Once you’ve dedicated yourself to making the things you love, every inbox can and should become a well-monitored servant rather than a merciless master.

Now it’s time for you to think how you manage your inboxes and which zeros are you chasing.

3 folders to manage your email

The Inbox Zero is a fantastic way to manage your email. One way to support the method is to create an simple folder structure that will allow for quick access to relevant type of information. One way to do that is to use create a set of three tags or folders to manage all the email:

  • Archive
  • Do
  • Waiting for

Why would you need just those three folders? These three are enough to support the need to keep a track of open itmes and maining a record of conversations. Let me explain one by one.


This is fairly self-explanatory. You need Archive folder to store your correspondence, keep a record of discussions held, any agreements made etc.
Depending on the system used to store emails the Archive can a giant single folder were everything gets lumped together. This can be easily applied in places where web-based email is used. Services like Gmail provide great search functionality so maintaining a large and complecated sub-folder structure is not be necessary. If you use other tools like Outlook which are not so good in search you will be better off with small set of folders.
In fact this is how I manage email in my workplace. I have two archive folders for major areas of my work. Each archive contains a limited number of folders. I’m trying to keep this number to a minimum but at the same time don’t let it to constrain my ability to categorise and file messages in a way that allows easy retrieval.


One way to manage to do items that arrive via email is to put them on your task list. This is an approach that I follow. The main reason for it, is that dealing with email is only part of my responsibilities so  emails should be kept with other actions.
However my approach may not be most effective in environments with heavy traffic. During the processing phase once you’ve established that there is something to do with them  it maybe easier to drop emails into the Do folder. When finished processing, open that folder and start working on one item at the time.

Creating a specific folders for items that require action will provide two benefits. First you have a copy of the original correspondence at hand so it’s easy to know what’s required. Secondly a separate folder allows to split todo items from other types of messages and especially remove them from the inbox leaving a clean slate.

Waiting For

Last important category of emails that you should be kept separate from others are waiting for items. Again you could keep track those on your task list and this is how I do it. If you have to deal with a large number of waiting fors, it may be easier to keep them in separate folder and review it regularly, at minimum once a day. Keeping this folder makes it much simpler to find the open items and follow up with someone.

Setting up your email client with these three folders allows you to better support excecution of inbox zero approach. It reduces the obstacles for accessing email, keep things cleas and nicely separated.

This was a last post in the series covering manging email. If you’re interested in the previous post please check email category on this blog.