Inbox Zero – Merlin Mann’s tech talk

Last week I shared my notes from David Weinberger’s ‘Everything is Miscellaneous’ tech talk. This week, I’m watching Merlin Mann talking about Inbox Zero (something at which I was successful in 2005, but have been failing to keep up). These are the notes I took while watching the video of Merlin’s talk (the slides are also available). As before, with the exception of stuff in square brackets, this is Merlin rather than me…

  • 06:27 – Time and Attention are finite, and are the most precious resources for knowledge workers
  • 07:15 – what does your email inbox tell you about what is important? Need ways to honour where your time and attention goes.
  • 09:42 – Prior art for ‘Inbox Zero’: David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’.
  • 10:22 – Overview: Email is just a medium, one place for anything, process to zero (don’t just check your email, process it!), convert to actions (always an action, including delete).
  • 12:00 – What is processing? “I’m going to check my email”, checking brings responsibility. Processing is more than checking, but less than responding (not every email needs a response). You don’t have to reply to 200 emails, you have to process them.
  • 13:45 – Make sandwiches, don’t just take orders. If you’re a sandwich maker taking orders, you’d deal with them as they arrived and then throw away the order. Don’t let email build up.
  • 14:50 – Limited options. 5 verbs (in rough order of desirability) Delete, Delegate, Respond (if you can do it quickly), Defer (if you need to work on it first), Do (if you can do it, do it now). Breaking those down…
  • 17:18 – Delete (or archive if you’ll need it later). Archive is one folder. “You’ve got the fricking gmail, search for it”.
  • 19:22 – Delegate. Convert into actions.
  • 20:19 – Respond. “Learning to blow out a two line reply is such a ninja move”. See [Some interesting background on]
  • 22:00 – Defer. To respond folder, which is then whittled down. The inbox should be for stuff you have not read yet.
  • 22:45 – Do (or capture a placeholder).
  • 23:48 – “Don’t live out of your inbox, and don’t use it as a todo list. That will make you crazy”.
  • 24:50 – the processing habit. Aristotle: “We are what we frequently do”. You have to make it into a habit.
  • 26:12 – Do email less. Don’t leave email open, don’t leave auto-check on. Shut it off, let it accumulate and go and work. Check your email once per hour and process it for 10 solid minutes (or your own schedule). Ditto for newsfeeds.
  • 28:12 – Cheat: filtering low level high noise stuff into a folder. Be careful you don’t over filter. Can we have templates in gmail please? [Searching around, the closest I find is this]
  • 32:30 – Thanks. (26 minute long Q&A begins. Q: I like the idea of only checking email once per hour, but everyone expects me to be checking it every 30 seconds. A: depends on team and person who evaluates you. You may be surprised. The pendulum seems to be swinging back.
  • 34:56 – Q: Are there good todo list tools? A: There are a few electronic ones (Remember the milk. Tadalist, … [he doesn’t mention Todoist, which is my current favourite]) but also could be a Moleskine notebook, whatever. A text file could be all you need. You don’t have a lot of different contexts (“at computer” is pretty much it). Choose the tool that stops just short of being fun to use. If it’s too fun to use you’re going to fiddle. I like something I can take on the plane. Nothing wrong with a sheet of paper.
  • 40:11 – Q: opinion on state of GTD [Getting Things Done] apps? A: 4 years ago there were not any. Now there are so many. Avoid those which try to do too much thinking for you. I like Unix Pipes. Lots of small apps working together. I don’t want a goofy penknife, I want the super sharp paring knife.
  • 42:56 – Q: order of processing mail: chronological? A: conventional wisdom is to cherry pick from highest priority. I try to go oldest to most recent in order.
  • 45:25 – What if you have a huge old inbox that’s built up? A: firstly, create a DMZ. Clear your inbox: drag it all into a folder, give yourself a fresh start and start the process on the new stuff.
  • 48:24 – Q: how would you cope with a system where a team gets an email and we all wait to see if someone else will answer? A: something like bug tracking? Some problems can’t be fixed by email. [turns into undoubtedly interesting but barely audible discussion with audience] [Update: Merlin opened a discussion on the topic at 43 Folders]
  • 55:00 – Q/statement: we bring David Allen in for Getting Things Done courses regularly. A: that’s a heck of a seminar. Cool that you do that.

I’m inspired to get my inbox(es) back to zero. There is lots more advice and coolness at

6 replies on “Inbox Zero – Merlin Mann’s tech talk”

  1. I still don’t like these things. I’m sure they just make things more complicated than they need to be. It’s just a list of messages. :-)

  2. Email: “it’s just a list of messages”. I like your style Darren. It may join Dave’s famous “a motorbike is simple; it’s just two wheels and a bit in the middle” and even “to create a search engine you just need to make a copy of the internet and index it” in my list of favourite gloriously common sense simplifications. :-)

  3. I like your outline of the presentation.
    I wonder if we could convince the good folks over at Viddler or Merlin to post the video at Viddler. This way your comments would serve as an index to the presentation.

  4. I do like Viddler. You could email Merlin and point out the benefits of community tagging by timestamp to him. To be honest, since the video was a Google Tech Talk, I believe it was uploaded to Google Video by Google themselves. My guess is they’re unlikely to want to cross-post it to Viddler.

Comments are closed.