Dealing with an onslaught of e-mail: ZEB

I’ve been experimenting with various productivity systems over the past 6-12 months. Recently Ashley found a book called The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play, which was a very worthwhile read, maybe even rising to the level of “inspiring.”

Dealing with e-mail: ZEB

Like many people that work in the “information economy,” I deal with a ton of e-mail–hundreds of messages every day, and sometimes it seems like I spend all day staring at an overflowing inbox. About a year ago I encountered a blog talking about “ZEB,” an acronym for “Zero E-Mail Bounce.” (It’s a “bounce” because as soon as you achieve it another 10 or 15 e-mails arrive, so it never stays there for long.)

ZEB Master Scott Hanselman writes, “I think it’s funny that we all know the human brain can’t comfortably hold more than 7 digits at once (hence the length of a phone number) but we think that having 5000 emails in our inbox ‘makes sure things aren’t dropped.'” Good point.

My Iteration of ZEB

My current system (somewhat modified from the original) basically uses 3 folders: actionable, active, and archive.

I try to check my e-mail less frequently than I used to, perhaps once every 30-60 minutes, and I quickly scan for important e-mails. If I can deal with an e-mail in less than a minute or two, I take care of it and move the original to the “archive” folder. Otherwise, it goes to one of those other folders.


If it’s going to take more than 2-3 minutes, I move it to “actionable” where I can deal with it at a later time when I “batch process” my e-mail. The idea is that you aren’t constantly scanning through the same e-mails over and over looking for things that might be falling through the cracks, so you have less “intellectual overhead” as you work. And, by processing in batches and setting goals (I use a 30-minute timer and aim to reduce the items in my “actionable” by a certain amount — usually 15 items) I work much more efficiently and don’t procrastinate as much.


If it is an informational e-mail that I need to keep track of, but it’s the ball isn’t in my court right now, I’ll move it to “active” for short-term reference. (Example: I might get a request from a client which I then delegate to someone on my team, but when I hear back from my team, I’ll need to reply to the client to let them know it’s done. The ball isn’t in my court, but I know it will be coming back soon and I’ll need this e-mail for reference. “Actionable,” on the other hand, has stuff that is “in my court” waiting for my action.)


Whenever I finish dealing with an e-mail, I archive it. I see people with hundreds of folders, and it seems like they spend all their time filing and organizing e-mail. But what’s really bad? Sometimes they miss, and drag and drop an e-mail in the wrong folder. Then, when they need it, they spend minutes or hours looking in every folder trying to find that wayward e-mail? Me? I just drop it in my big cardboard box called “archive.” It seems messy at first, until you realize that with the power of modern search tools, I can find anything in seconds. My archive folder now has around 80,000 messages, all of which are stored in the cloud and are fully searchable thanks to gmail. I can access these messages from my phone, my computer, my friend’s computer — wherever I’m at, I always have the e-mail I need in seconds, and I don’t have to spend all day filing and sorting. I love it.

So far it seems to be working pretty well. Right now I have 41 e-mails in actionable, but by the end of today I’m aiming to have 20 or fewer and nothing in my inbox, which will be quite an accomplishment. =)

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