“No new mail!” Is there a more pleasing sight? It’s like your screen is speaking to you directly, congratulating you for a job well done. Emptying your email inbox can be an almost therapeutic experience, akin to decluttering your wardrobe or cleaning your house from top to bottom. But, just like cleaning your house, it’s a never-ending task. It won’t be long until you hear that familiar "ping!" to let you know your inbox is once again occupied.

It’s enough to make you throw down the virtual gauntlet and try to figure out how to achieve Inbox Zero and take control of your notifications. But is Inbox Zero helping or harming you? First, we need to define exactly what this practice entails.

What is Inbox Zero? 

The term “Inbox Zero” was coined by productivity expert Merlin Mann in a 2007 Google Tech Talk and later expanded on in his 2014 book, Inbox Zero: Cutting Through the Crap to Do the Work That Matters. Borrowing from David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, Inbox Zero instructs users to view email as a medium, not a destination. The goal is to reduce the time spent on your email platform — instead, you should figure out the right place for your emails and process them accordingly. In short, Inbox Zero could be viewed as a simple filing system.

Inbox Zero outlines five key actions for managing your emails:

  • Delete: Decide if the email has any value. If not, simply delete it. If so, choose one of the other four options.
  • Delegate: If this email is more relevant to another team member, forward it to their inbox.
  • Respond: If you can send a quick response in less than two minutes, do.
  • Defer: Sometimes, a response will take longer than two minutes. If that’s the case, set the email aside for later.
  • Do: Do you have time right now to complete the task outlined in the email? Then get to work.

Rather than leaving your email tab open at all times, Mann advises checking it three times a day, selecting one of the above options, and getting back to work.

Should we try to achieve Inbox Zero? 

Yes — and no. 

Some have taken the concept of Inbox Zero too literally, mistakenly viewing it as an end goal, i.e., having zero messages in your inbox. This leads to an overreliance on the "Delete" function, meaning emails are filed away out of sight but aren’t being processed correctly. In their quest to achieve Inbox Zero, some workers may actually become counterproductive, wasting time obsessing over a clear slate while avoiding tasks that require their attention.

Mann has clarified that the Inbox Zero method is more of a mindset. He said: “It’s about how to reclaim your email, your atten­tion, and your life. That ‘zero?’ It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox — it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.” 

If you follow the Inbox Zero philosophy as Mann intended, it can be a very effective productivity tool.

The Elusive “Inbox Zero” and How Notifications Are Ruining Our Brains 2
(Photo by Nubelson Fernandes on Unsplash)

Are notifications bad for us?

Notifications are a funny thing. On the one hand, they can trigger feelings of joy and excitement. Harvard Medical School researcher Trevor Haynes notes that positive social media notifications, such as likes or comments from friends, have the “potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.”

However, this desire for a regular dopamine hit can spiral quickly into addiction. Indeed, apps are designed to be addictive, sending push notifications and creating the illusion of "FOMO" to encourage users to engage frequently on their platform. Computer scientist Tristan Harris equates this fixation to gambling, referring to smartphones as “the slot machine in your pocket.” 

Notifications can also be a productivity killer. According to Prof Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, an interrupted employee will take an “average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds” to return to their work. You may think you are just checking that one Slack message from your colleague, but they could have sent you an interesting link that leads you down a rabbit hole. The next thing you know, you’re one hour deep into a YouTube binge, and you’ve missed the start of an important Zoom meeting.

And then there are those notifications that spark anxiety. The dreaded Microsoft Teams message from your boss requesting a “quick chat.” A desktop email alert, adding another item to your growing to-do list. With this seemingly relentless demand for your attention, it makes sense that so many people have latched on to the original concept of Inbox Zero and altered it to assuage their personal worries. As Silvia Killingsworth wrote in The New Yorker, a tweaked version of Inbox Zero can act as a “coping mechanism for the anxiety created by a constant flux of email.”

Daily notifications aren’t going anywhere. As we move away from full-time interaction towards a hybrid workplace, employees must maintain an online presence and be reachable. However, you can learn how to take control of your notifications. 

How to manage notifications 

Let’s be real — how much time are you spending on your smartphone when you should be on your desktop? This is effectively doubling the amount of distractions, with notifications popping up incessantly on two screens.

Here are a few tips to help you manage notifications for both devices, helping you boost productivity at work:

Conduct an app audit

Go through your smartphone and desktop to delete any apps you do not need. Be ruthless — you can always redownload one if needs be. After that, go into your settings and tailor notifications for each app. 

Mute notifications

So, you’ve been added to another WhatsApp group to organize a friend’s birthday present. Don’t panic! Resist the urge to cry and simply mute notifications for this particular group. If you’re experiencing a similar intrusion on your desktop with various websites clamoring for your attention, go ahead and block all Chrome notifications.

Use Do Not Disturb mode

Maybe your day-to-day notifications are under control, but you need to be hyper-productive for a few hours to complete a certain task. This is where Do Not Disturb mode comes in. If you’re using this mode on a Mac, incoming notifications won’t alert you but they will be stored away for later. Windows 10 has its own version of Do Not Disturb, called Focus Assist. On a smartphone, you could also try Airplane Mode, the highest battery-saving mode, or, failing that, simply switch it off.

Streamline your tools

An all-in-one work management software solution can help minimize notifications by keeping all your apps in one place. Close those unnecessary tabs and work from one platform without distraction.

Emails and notifications themselves aren’t the problem — how you deal with them is. By implementing Inbox Zero correctly and tailoring your notifications effectively, you’ll be on the right path to productivity — and hopefully will never dread that "ping!" again.