04 Aug 2019

Inbox Zero meets Agile

Originally published on Medium.

Let’s admit it, emails are not fun! It is one of the leading causes of stress and unhappiness in our lives. Studies have shown the severe effect emails have on us and that checking emails less frequently and reading a bunch of mails at a time reduces stress. Try to think about the last time you were in control of your emails. Most of us experience this only once, when you sign into the account for the very first time. Imagine now that you can experience this again, consistently. It is possible.

Inbox Zero — A strategy for managing emails efficiently by having a predefined structure and only processing an email once.

Agile — A methodology that promotes continuous improvement by iteratively identifying inconsistencies and making adjustments.

The marriage of these concepts will lead to finding your ideal email management strategy.

This is not Inbox Zero. This is Inbox Kanban.

Inbox Kanban

I started by implementing the original Inbox Zero strategy. Sticking as close to the core principles as possible, conscious about the challenges that come with change. It was working, but I found it challenging to classify the emails in their respective folders and thought it could be a lot simpler. This led to a more agile approach and I ended up with a classic Kanban structure.


  • Inbox
  • Open
  • In Progress
  • Closed


Emails that have not been processed yet.


Emails that have been processed, but not attended to yet.

In Progress

Emails that are currently being attended to.


Emails that have already been attended to, or abandoned. This naturally becomes your archive.

Some example stories

An email comes into your inbox that reads “Do you like beer?”. You can simply respond to this mail, consider it as dealt with, and move it into closed. Done and gone.

The follow-up email reads “What is your favourite beer?”. This requires more time and attention and is moved into open so that it can be dealt with later. After a visit to the local pub for a final round (or more) of testing you respond to the mail with your conclusion and move it to closed.

Another email comes in with the question: “What beers should we get for the RWC final between SA & NZ?”. This mail is moved into open, because you can’t just respond without exercising due diligence. Some time later, you revisit it and send a mail to you friends asking them: “What is your favourite beer?”. This email can be moved to in progress while you wait for your friends, whom have no control over their emails, to get back to you. Finally, once you’ve consolidated all the information, you can respond to the original email and move it into closed.


Some basic guidelines could help you to adopt this strategy.

Process regularly — not constantly

All emails can wait to be processed. Stop constantly watching your inbox, waiting for the next email or worrying about missing an email that is flagged as urgent, important or any of the other meaningless flags. You can be way more effective with your time. Processing your emails hourly, daily, or even weekly. The sweet-spot for me with an active inbox is 3 times a day (morning, lunch, afternoon).

Pareto principle

The Pareto principle, commonly known as the 80/20 rule, also applies to emails. This means that 20% of our emails will consume 80% of our focus. Accept the handful of twenty-percenters and allow yourself the space to deal with them. The rest of your feed can be dealt with quickly and effectively.

Unsubscribe everywhere

We are under constant attack from unsolicited emails. Remove yourself from all the mailing lists that constantly flood your inbox with spam.

Create templates

If you find yourself drafting the same email more than once, you should consider to create a template for the next time.

Use your calendar

When an email is linked to some date-based event, get it into a calendar. Calendars are designed to track scheduled events, our brains are not.

Image for post
Microsoft Outlook’s message for an empty inbox

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