What's your standard for email?

I assert that it’s actually less effort to maintain your email inbox at zero than to maintain it at 300 or 3,000. Will it take effort? Of course. But there is gold to be mined there with a trusted practice that will have ripple effects across your workflow and motivation.

At a certain point, you will clean up your email. For some people twenty is too many. And for some, it’s five thousand. Different standards for “stuff.”

These standards are very powerful unconscious drivers of your behavior and permitted experience. You may consciously think you’d like to keep a neater house, or process your email more regularly, but if you don’t change the set point of the real standards you have about the amount of out-of-control-ness you actually will tolerate, they will slide back in spite of your best intentions. Pit your willpower against your unconscious cruise controls, and guess where I’ll place my bets.

If the good fairy visited everyone you know and work with right now and magically dissolved every email sitting in IN, within days the number would be back up to the comfort zone of the individual. Some people would have twenty, some three hundred, and some two thousand. Even people doing the same jobs, at the same level, with the same amount of input.

For email, it’s actually less effort to maintain it at zero than to maintain it at three hundred. The decision about the next action is still unmade for much of what lies in IN (hence it is still “stuff,” i.e. something in your world for which the action is still unclear). Every time you even slightly notice that email again and do not dispatch it, it wastes energy. As soon as you allow indecision on the front end with any of your input, you have broken the code and it will mount up all around you.

This excerpt is from a recent issue of David’s Productive Living newsletter. It’s free and sent about every 4 weeks. You’ll find essays from David Allen, thought-provoking quotes, and productivity tips you can use every day.

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  1. I am new to GTD and started doing the email inbox to zero. I feel exactly what you talk about in this article, uncomfortable because I had been using my inbox as a holding spot with a certain number of emails regularly there. My email stuff set-point, if you will. I am still a little uncomfortable with the ‘change,’ but I see the value of this process in not having to review all pending emails repeatedly. I have become more aware of other areas where a comfort set-point exists and I feel can make better decisions about whether I need to make a change there as well. Just have to get used to the new ‘normal.’ Thanks.

  2. Hi Mary-Beth,

    Good for you for developing that new habit of processing your inbox to zero. It will get easier. Once you build trust in looking at your next action lists and calendar for what to do, you’ll find it more comfortable to have zero in your inbox.

    GTD Times Editorial Staff

  3. My inbox length is zero since over 2 years now. And it feels great. Emptied inbox, emptied head into the contextual action lists, then briefly lean back and think »okay, what’s the best thing to do now?«
    I have deactivated all email notifications, but still look too often for new mail. However, I am confident to get this down to 4 times a day soon.

  4. Spent this week getting down from 700+ to zero in my inbox, including a load of old mails that have been sat around for ages.

    Question – how do you deal with ongoing conversations that may occur over a few days, without being sure they’ll ever turn into projects? I have a “* / Today / WO folder” where I put these, but that was where most of those 700 had gone 🙁

    Currently trying out the GTD Outlook extension to see if it helps.

  5. I love keeping mine at zero and always have. I treat as my inbox on my desk, a temporary holding area only. Besides, if I need something it will be in a folder and I can look for it there. Sometimes when making tasks or setting calendar appointments related to an email, I leave a note in the task as to which folder I placed email in and on which date it came in. That makes it easy to go find it later.

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