A New, Sustainable Approach to Inbox Zero

Martine Ellis
3 min readSep 25, 2021
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

My email inbox makes me anxious.

I manage this anxiety and have done so for years by practising Inbox Zero… or at least ‘a version’ of Inbox Zero.

While I still firmly believe in the principles of Inbox Zero — which I will expand upon in a moment — now I think there is a better, more sustainable way to stay on top of your emails and reduce anxiety.

The Problem with Inbox Zero

Merlin Mann came up with the concept of Inbox Zero and has always maintained that it was about devising a process for managing emails.

Unfortunately, Inbox Zero suffered a lethal mutation — the concept was taken too literally (a regular occurrence in the world of productivity). Many understood Inbox Zero to mean that you should empty your inbox daily. While I started similarly, I quickly realised approaching emails this way was flawed.

If you insist that you need to get to Inbox Zero every single day — in all of your inboxes — the sheer workload involved and the constant failure can induce anxiety.

Remember when I said that I practised Inbox Zero to reduce email anxiety? See the issue?

When you think about the volume of emails you receive, combined with the number of actual inboxes you have (email, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, other social media), it’s no wonder we feel we are failing at Inbox Zero.

Solid Inbox Zero Concepts

Many aspects of Merlin Mann’s original ‘Inbox Zero’ model form the foundation of my approach. For example, I:

  1. Have a straightforward process for managing emails.
  2. Do not use my inbox as a task manager; emails requiring action are transferred to a task manager (my one point of truth) unless they can be dealt with in under two minutes, in which case, I ….
  3. Apply the two-minute rule: if I can deal with an email in under two minutes, I do so immediately.
  4. (Try to) close my email program when I am not using it — I schedule a time to deal with emails.

Furthermore, I treat my inbox as a temporary repository, so I delete and unsubscribe vigorously!

Martine Ellis

Wellbeing-driven productivity systems and strategies for people who are neurodivergent (or think they might be). Weekly email digest → notesbymartine.com