Inbox zero is a state where your email inbox has zero messages. Not zero unread messages, zero messages total.
To some, inbox zero was a new years resolution (still working on it!). To others it's a habit, a way of life. And for most of us it's a distant place that we can only dream of visiting someday. A trip that is postponed until further notice.
As the idea for this post came to me, I started wondering about the origin story. I don't have internet access as I write this so I'm just going to guess.
In the early-days of email we had Excite, AOL, Yahoo, and Hotmail. Microsoft Outlook was dominant in the corporate world. I used all of these tools and I don't recall having an 'Archive' feature in any of them. Inbox management was simply read an email, file it away, or leave it in your inbox.
Then came Gmail with it's mysterious Archive button. Google replaced folders with labels and archiving. Coming from Outlook it took me sometime to adopt the habit of archiving (I was stuck in the folders concept). But once I got comfortable with tapping that Archive button, I started to get closer to the state of Inbox zero.
So my conclusion is Inbox zero is the byproduct of Gmail's Archive button.
But why inbox zero? Why strive for this elusive state?
If you don't get there, you're using email wrong. Email becomes the itch you cannot scratch as the never ending list of messages continue to pile on. You read some now, you figure you'll get to others later, and you never feel accomplished because you have so many more to go through.
Your main argument is all those emails need your attention. The flash sale email, the obscure sneaker newsletter, deals on flights to Europe, bank notice, club soccer team group thread, all these emails need to be looked at and processed. But if you aren't shopping for anything right now, or planning on going on a European vacation, do you really need to process those emails? Why not just archive them and if you do happen to need a new pair of pants the next day, use the search tool to find that flash sale email.
If your inbox is a task list, you are doing email wrong.
Your approach should be receive, process, archive. Ideally you do this in deliberate, planned, time-allocated chunks. This way you process them in bulk and are not interrupted throughout the day processing email. If an email does require you to take some action, schedule it. Add it to your calendar or your favorite task list tool. Schedule it, archive it.
In the early-days of the internet, the volume of email circulating was minimal. Today, the amount of newsletters and email notifications that exist is mind boggling. You can easily get 100 emails a day. Given this, reassess how many of these services and notices you actually need. The fewer you have, the easier it will be for you to reach inbox zero.
Getting to inbox zero will bring not only a sense of accomplishment, but of resolve. You're caught up. You've scheduled any relevant actions. You've processed the information. You can carry on with your day knowing that you don't have to check your inbox every few minutes.
It's the lifestyle habits and processes you instill that make inbox zero much more valuable than just inbox zero.