The Zero Inbox Challenge

Freeing the mind of daily, unconscious stress

by Liesel Houghton

[5 minute read]


“Our brain is for having ideas, not holding ideas”– David Allen, Getting Things Done[1]

We live in a global community where we can be reached in seconds by anyone across the world over numerous different platforms. We should feel more connected and more productive than ever before. Our brains have an incredible capacity to take in large amounts of information, store and file it all while coming up with creative ideas, solving problems and deciding what’s for dinner tonight. We should feel an unprecedented freedom and ability to get things done. Instead we’re filled with stress, anxiety amongst leaders is at an all-time high and we’re drowning in inefficiency.  We store useless information in our minds and make thousands of different decisions a day, leaving our brains little to no space or energy to do what it does best.

So, let’s tackle one of the biggest inputs in our lives -  the email Inbox. You may have heard of this glorious phenomenon called ‘Zero Inbox’, and either thought it was way too hard or you already have a decent system in place, so why bother?

Let me start with a story -  After hearing some productivity tips at an Arrow residential, a participant went home and followed the steps we gave him to help tackle an overrun inbox. He had thousands of emails in there, read and unread, and no idea of the unconscious stress this was putting him under. He got himself down to zero and later told us that after accomplishing zero inbox he had never slept so well in his life.  

Every email has a person, a subject, a task, a “should”, a “could”, or a “maybe” attached to it. Every time you open that email box your brain is making decisions about what to do with it, whether it’s waiting for a response, a task you will do next week, or that really tough question you just don’t want to answer right now. By using the ‘zero inbox’ method you are making those decisions for each email, but instead of being faced with those decisions every time you open your e-mails, you make the decision once – leaving valuable space in your brain to focus and move on. It also forces you to make decisions and deal with tasks more quickly, making you more efficient and effective. This then helps you move emails out of our inbox (and out of your mind) to a place where you will be reminded of the task you need to complete, in the time you need to complete it.

Here are a few key steps to getting to a zero inbox every day:

  1. The Two-Minute Rule. If you read an email and it can be responded to, or the task you need to do from this email will take two minutes or less, do it immediately and then archive or delete.

  2. For any email that has a bigger task associated, create a ‘to do’ in your task management system (this could be a simple daily task list, an app or a task management system like ’Things’) . Make sure to write your next action clearly as the task, immediately make your decision on what needs to be done next and then schedule that task for a day when you will be able to do it. Finally, archive that email. Your email system has amazing search functions so later on when that task pops up and you want to see the email again you can search your archive folder for the person, the subject or even keywords in the email.

Task management systems like ‘Things’[2] will allow you to link the original email to the task, making it really easy to jump back to the email when you need to. There are also plugins for your email like ‘Mail Butler’[3] that enable you to hide the email and have it return to your inbox when you need to respond.

  1. Unsubscribe! There are some things you may want to stay in touch with, like receiving your Arrow Leadership Blog post, but there are also many emails you are probably getting that you can’t remember ever signing up for. Don’t just delete it every time - unsubscribe and give yourself one less decision to make. You can also set up email rules. If there are some subscriptions you still want to receive so you know when ‘Asos’ are having a sale, but don’t need it clogging up your inbox during work hours, then have it automatically go to a smart folder. You can then reference these emails when you want to.

  2. Got an email sitting there that you can’t do anything about because you are waiting for someone else to respond? You can manage this in a few different ways. You can set up a to-do in your task management system reminding you to follow the person up on a day when you know you really need a response, then archive the email. You can create a ‘waiting for’ folder in your inbox and move these emails there, and occasionally check that folder to see who you need to chase up. You can also use a plug in like ‘Mail Butler’ that will let you know if someone hasn’t responded to you by the date and time you set. Then you can archive and let your systems do the work in reminding you when to follow up that person.

With these few rules you will get to zero inbox on a daily basis. When I see that empty inbox it reminds me that I have achieved something and allows me to move on with my day in an efficient manner. Everything else is scheduled for a time and place where I will be reminded of the task. Accomplishing Zero Inbox gives me such a sense of freedom instead of the stress that comes from knowing there’s so much there to do that I just don’t know where to start.

Do you want less stress and anxiety in your life? Give Zero Inbox a go!

Happy zero inboxing!

[1] David Allen, “Getting Things Done; The Art of Stress Free Productivity”, (London:Little Brown:2015)

[2] ‘Things’ link –

[3] ‘Mail Butler’ link -