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'Inbox Zero': Email Wellness

When I glance at people’s mobile phones and see email notifications in the thousands, I feel stressed. It’s a constant reminder of pending tasks and life disorganisation (no matter how much they try to assure me that it doesn’t bother them).

The single best way I have improved my wellbeing over the last 5 years is through managing my email inbox. It may sound trite – in a world where we are dealing with life and death situations, in a high pressure and under-resourced environment, how can emails really matter that much?

Email to me is my to-do list – emails about work, my non-clinical projects, tasks from my kids’ schools all accumulated in my email inbox. Some years ago I spent around 1 week sorting my inbox and I’ve never looked back.

The concept of Inbox Zero was developed by Merlin Mann. And it’s not about literally having an empty inbox, it’s about being in control of your own task management. You split your emails into folders (create folders that are relevant to your life). I have Inbox, Action, Tickler (for quick ref items), and Receipts.

The first step is to have a clearout and go big on archiving. Old emails shouldn’t be sitting in your inbox. Most email clients will automatically archive when you ‘delete’ the email so it’s easy to do – and you can find them if you need to again. Spend a few days just clearing out the old stuff. Put the ones you don’t want to archive or delete into your folders.

Now you have a fresh start.

The principles of email management are simple. There are a few types of email that we receive.

The email that is just FYI. This email can be read and archived. Nothing else needs to be done, so it doesn’t need to hang around in your inbox.

The email that you need to reply to.A quick reply should be done then and there, and the email can be archived. If it needs more time for you to work out a reply then it needs to be added to your action list.

The spam email.Find the unsubscribe button and get yourself off that mailing list before you delete the email.

The email that you need to action.This depends on what the action is.

  • An action that takes less than 5 minutes should be done then and there (and then archive the email).

  • An action that you can delegate to someone else can be forwarded then and there.

  • An action that will take a bit longer, but can be done later that day, can wait in your inbox (or go to your Action folder if you have one)

  • For bigger tasks e.g. writing papers, designing slides I add them to a task list (I use Wunderlist for this but there are plenty of others available) and archive the email.

The outcome from this is that I use a combination of email folders, and Wunderlist to manage my tasks. But there are rarely more than five emails in my actual inbox.

So, what’s the benefit?

  • You don’t miss important emails

  • You respect others and respond to emails in a timely fashion

  • You don’t stress about your enormous inbox

  • You get a great sense of satisfaction knowing the email side of your life is handled and you can focus on other aspects of your life.

A small change to my practise that has had a giant impact on mywellbeing. Try it. You will not regret it.

Dr Tessa Davis (@TessaRDavis) is a Paediatric Emergency Medicine Clinical Fellow at the Royal London Hospital and is co-founder of Don't Forget the Bubbles


Carlo, N. Manage your emails with the ‘Inbox Zero’ method,

Davies, C. 4 unique strategies for reaching inbox zero, Hubspot,

Tank, A. Improve your productivity with inbox zero,

Vardy, M. The ultimate way to get inbox zero,

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