Merlin Mann's email inbox is full of clutter. That's embarrassing for him to admit. He's the guy who invented the concept of inbox zero.

Mann is a productivity guru who launched the website 43folders.com in 2004. He soon began preaching the gospel of inbox zero in articles on his site. The New Yorker described it as a "revolutionary e-mail-management system." Mann gave a Google Tech Talk on inbox zero. It caught on like wildfire. 

Achieving inbox zero became so sought-after that wildly popular app Mailbox designed its entire product strategy around hitting inbox zero. When you got there, you received a glorious "You're all done" message over a pretty picture. The picture would change each time, gamifying the experience. (Dropbox acquired Mailbox and shut it down in 2016.)

But Mann says we're doing it wrong. In an interview with Wired UK, he explains how we all missed the point about inbox zero -- and what we should do instead.

Stop treating inbox zero as a means to an end.

What exactly is so useful about achieving inbox zero? It might be to be able to say that you did it. It feels good. Yet, due to the volume of emails we receive these days, it's perhaps no longer an admirable goal. 

When Mann first unveiled the concept of inbox zero, he had one inbox. Today, we have dozens more that could be considered inboxes. 

  • Work email

  • Personal email

  • Twitter DMs

  • Facebook Messenger

  • Instagram DMs

  • Slack

  • Text messages

Mann told Wired you should dissect how you're spending your time on these various inboxes. If your attention is so spread thin because you're responding to messages from all these places all the time, it's no surprise that you feel stressed out. 

Have some grace with yourself. Accept that you can't do it all. Forget responding to every single message. Letting some of the less important stuff linger will give you some peace.

But, that's not an excuse to simply opt out and stop replying to anything. Microsoft researchers found that ignoring emails was a telltale sign of a bad manager. You've still got to stay on top of the priority items in your inbox. It's up to you to decide what those priorities are.

Be wary of the clean slate approach.

New year, new decade. Why not go for the nuclear option and hit delete on everything? Wipe the slate clean and start fresh. 

That's a terrible idea, Mann says. Instead, identify key areas of focus. Maybe you can hit delete on a certain type of email -- such as notifications or promotional ones. 

But save the important stuff. Begin to formulate a strategy to triage what's important and what's not. There are various methods to minimizing time spent on email. Mann suggests dedicating time three times a day to catch up on your inbox. Some productivity experts recommend not checking email first thing in the morning so you can focus on deep work tasks instead. 

These strategies might not work for all people, especially those whose jobs require quick replies to emails. If you have some flexibility around email, here are a few approaches:

  • Delete the email app from your phone when you're on vacation. Don't panic. It's easy to download the app againwhen you're back online.

  • If you must email on weekends or during odd hours to catch up, schedule them to arrive during working hours. This is especially important if you're in a leadership role so that you lead by example and don't perpetuate an always-on culture. If you're emailing all weekends long, your direct reports will feel they need to as well.

  • Turn off notifications -- email and otherwise -- so you're not constantly distracted with urgent-but-not-necessarily-important pings. ​