Is an empty inbox a good idea?

“I am about to describe an action whose benefits are almost magical. I say magical because whenever I do it, I cannot really explain why it works so well, but it always leaves me in awe. This magical thing is emptying my inbox”.

This is what Michael Linenberger* has written in his book ‘Total Workday Control’. It highlights the focus I’d like to bring to day one of the 12th International “Clean Out Your Inbox Week” - WHY we should clean out our inbox.

I have written about this in my Mastery Guide on “7 Reasons to Keep Your Inbox Empty” and an 8th Reason I added just recently. If you are not convinced by what I've written on this topic, maybe you'll be persuaded by what Michael Linenberger has to say.

He continues “Even today, every time I do it, I am left feeling amazed. Amazed at what a difference it makes. Amazed at the refreshed feeling I experience each time, the reduction in inbox stress, and at my resulting eagerness to move forward with my work (and even to get more new email).

All that joy really does not make sense. Yet a remarkable change occurs as soon as I empty the inbox - all the tension and uncertainty associated with the email I've been getting all day instantly disappears.

Questions like;

  • have I read it all?

  • did I forget to reply to anyone?

  • is there a time bomb in here?

  • am I leaving something undone?

All these are gone when I see an empty or near empty inbox. It is such a refreshing feeling, to know there is nothing lurking in there. Emptying the inbox make a very clear, almost a symbolic statement: I am done with email, and I can move on”.

Now, it might help to realise that the real purpose of the inbox is to simply be a place where new, unread items are received. It the electronic equivalent to the old physical ‘in tray’, Pidgeon hole or letterbox.

Another way to think of it is as the reception area at the emergency ward of a hospital. If you were the triage nurse, you wouldn’t see patients as they first arrive, hear about their condition and then leave dozens or even hundreds of them in the waiting room in various states of health. As Linenberger says, “otherwise you’d be continually revisiting those waiting patients and asking ‘tell me again, why are you here’'’? Some patients with serious needs might get much worse as you waste time circling the room revisiting other patients. Some could even die.

Instead, you would triage them quickly and then move them along to appropriate area of the hospital for further treatment. Likewise, use your inbox as a triage area where you review each email, quickly make a decision on the next action needed and then move the email out of the inbox immediately. This makes space for you to give full attention to the next batch of ‘patients’.

Does the idea of emptying your inbox make sense to you now?

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at WHEN we should and when we should NOT look at our inbox.

*Based in America, Michael has been called ‘Efficiency Guru’ by the Detroit News. He has 25 years as a consultant and trainer on task/email management and project/workplace productivity.

Steuart Snooks