Inbox Zero vs. Inbox Five, and how to actually get things done

People are always on the hunt for efficiency and control over the massive information flow they’re facing, and the latest fix for actually getting things done. Amidst all techniques and approaches, I thought I’d outline what at least works for me.

Inbox Zero vs. Inbox Five

The first challenge: dealing with e-mail.

A number of people are hooked on Inbox Zero, although many of them haven’t looked into what it means, but instead taken it literally: i.e. unless you have zero e-mails in your Inbox, you have failed.

I can’t pretend that I’m well versed in the methodologies behind Inbox Zero, but it’s generally a mindset about having control over your e-mail and where you spend your attention.

Looking at the literal approach, with zero e-mails in the inbox, it’s probably the most stressful approach there can be. If/when you ever reach Inbox Zero, every new e-mail, every pling, notification and such is almost screaming:

You have failed! You don’t have Inbox Zero anymore, loser!

Personally, I try to keep my Inbox as empty as possible. I think my golden rule, if any, is to have about five e-mails there. E-mail that I need to think about and that are currently the most important ones to me.

If I get a new one, I don’t freak out. But if I go over ten e-mails, I need to start cleaning.

Reminders, reminders, reminders!

I believe the most common problem is that people keep e-mail in their inboxes as reminders, to-do-lists or similar, things that have to be dealt with before that e-mail can be moved.

Personally, I quickly make a distinction between inbox-worthy and something I just need to track later down the line. If it’s the latter, I rather just add a reminder to my calendar (usually a week or two later) and follow up then.

Number of chances

If you are the person reaching out to someone, in the need of collaborating or similar, I’d urge you not to give up too quickly. And I’ve realized it’s not that big of a difference between not getting a reply, or getting a few sporadic replies, but nothing is actually moving forward.

So, down to chances. I generally give people about two chances – that could be two reminder e-mails, or two e-mails back and forth, but if I don’t see progress, I’m not going to let that own me till the end of time.

Getting back to people

I’ve written before (quite a long time ago, actually) in The decency of replying to e-mails about what I think about getting back to people. Not replying to e-mails leads to so much frustration and bad blood, and it’s such a waste.

And if you have an e-mail address but don’t reply, it’s useless. And honestly, it’s not that hard getting back to people. You don’t need to solve every task, you don’t need to write a novel. But just, please, reply.

For me, it’s very simple: it’s about respect, and honestly, about human decency. If someone takes the time to write to you, to initiate a conversation, they deserve the decency of being heard.

I get a lot of e-mail every day, and I reply to those people. If you’ve e-mailed me and haven’t heard back in a few days, ask again. Because it’s my full intention to do that. And this goes for blog comments, Twitter, Facebook etc as well.

E-mail as a communication form

It’s not very hard to find people unhappy about handling e-mail and the stress they think is coming from there. And man, if I had gotten a dollar for every time I heard:

E-mail sucks, there must some better form

but then nothing constructive, no alternative comes out of that.

Personally, I think e-mail is great. I really do. It gives me the chance to reply to people when I can, to include necessary references and files, to have a history of that conversation.

Is it optimal for everything? No, of course not. I think especially when things can become a bit heated in writing (goes for all writing, not just e-mail) talking in person is much better to calm things down.

But for overall communication, at least I haven’t seen any other option being close.

Getting things done

If you haven’t gotten tired of this post already, this is where it gets interesting. I have, as many others, tried various approaches to be more effective, to achieve something, to get things done.

And for me at least, it doesn’t matter how many to-do-lists you have, how many GTD processes and how good intentions you have. You could be super-perky, because by general belief you get more things done when you’re happy (although Iโ€™m afraid of happy campers). But all that doesn’t matter that much.

It’s about doing things.

I face many things every day where I just sigh and don’t feel like doing them. But the only way of of getting things done, is to do them. Simple as that.

There are so many things you can just get rid of by dealing with them directly, instead of mentally storing them, thinking about them and then deal with them later.

Do as much as you can directly. Then it’s off of your mind, and you can relax and do something else. Next time you feel overwhelmed, don’t waste your strength on that feeling, or, at times, not even getting an overview of the situation.

Just start doing tasks, one-by-one, and you’ll see how rewarding it is!


  • Arun Kumar says:

    I am GTD enthusiast and I have been teaching and training Inbox zero for sometime now.

    Getting back to people is something that I learnt recently the hard way. I now see if it would be appropriate to get the email conversation converted to a mobile conversation through calls and followups and results in bring proper closure.

    With regards to Inbox Five, I am of opinion that it is unproductive. if you have 5 email read(or unread) in your inbox your conscious mind will be always hooked on to it whenever you open your mailbox. You are making you inbox as stale stagnant water, which will bring stagnation in your subconscious mind too.

    Email systems are reactive systems, it is need to be attended processed like ninja and needs to be brought to zero. Having 5 email in your mail box which you ignore from time to time is like having 5 digital memoirs sitting in your Inbox. It would conflict your mind every time you come to check new emails and expecting that you will find only new mails. Inbox Zero if practiced properly gives complete piece of mind.

  • Robert Nyman says:


    Thanks for commenting!
    I should have been clearer on what Inbox Five means to me:

    First, they’re all read, so no noise there. Also, it’s more or less a to-do/action list for me that day. If I don’t act on them or get further with them, they don’t deserve to be there. I completely agree that if they’re not interacted with, they would indeed become stale and bring stagnation.

  • Matthijs says:

    Good post. I follow almost the same approach as you Robert. Tried the Inbox Zero but in practice it’s just like you said: emails keep coming in so it will never be empty anyway.

    And I use the inbox as a sort of todo list. Of course I could use a fancy Todo App for that (have used a couple in the past) to keep the Inbox empty, but in the end it is only more work. For example when someone emails me with a list of things/questions. Putting those in a Todo application only means a lot of copy paste and ordering work. Instead, just leaving it in my inbox until I have the time to do them works better.

    Of course, you have to make sure the inbox doesn’t get too full. I have mostly about 5-20 mails in it.

    Combine that with a simple piece of paper and pen to jot down other todo’s and the whole GTD workflow is finished. Big advantage of simple paper is its flexibility: you can write a nice list of things down, but also anything else like a quick note, phone number, even small sketches etc.

  • Robert Nyman says:


    And yes, for me it works like a very basic to-do-list as well. But you’re right: not let it get too many items! ๐Ÿ™‚

    And definitely, paper is a nice addition!

  • Steven says:

    This is utter brilliance. ๐Ÿ™‚ It seems so easy at times to become obsessed with methods and strict definitions of success, instead of adhering to them insofar as they are actually fulfilling their purpose of increasing efficiency and productivity. I tend to get bogged down with the insignificant details, and lose sight of the bottom line that you mentioned- “It’s about doing things.”

    Thanks for the motivation!

  • Robert Nyman says:


    Thank you very much, glad you liked it!

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