Instead of focusing on the best way to process the emails coming into your inbox, why not take steps to actually reduce the number of emails you receive in the first place?
I've done it myself, and it's something I now implement with every team I work with. It's easier than you might think, and can provide massive time savings when implemented across an entire team or company. So let's forget Inbox Zero for a second and get you and your team to "Email Zero."
Recognizing the boomerang effect
The first thing to understand about getting to Email Zero is that email has what I like to call a "boomerang effect." When you send an email, it will most likely come back to you in some shape or form--whether that's a useful response, a simple "thanks," or an irrelevant reply-all.
The more emails you send, the more emails you're going to receive. Therefore, it's pretty simple--if you want to receive fewer emails, stop sending so many! Try to remind yourself that every email you send is going to hurt your own productivity and that of the receiver(s). Ask yourself if you really need to send that email--and if the answer is no, don't send it!
If the answer is yes, then ask yourself if email is the right tool for the job.
Email is borderline archaic--it just had its 50th birthday, and it really hasn't changed all that much over the years. It's not built for things like managing projects, tracking the status of leads, or brainstorming with co-workers, yet many companies rely on it for all of those things and more.
Therefore, the best way to get to Email Zero (outside of just sending fewer emails) is to sort your communications into the right tool for the job.
Internal versus external communication
Email should really only be used for communicating with people outside of your organization. All internal communication should be done on tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams.
Why is this so important? A company can only grow as fast as knowledge can be retrieved.
When internal conversations are managed in email, they get lost, forgotten about, and take longer to retrieve. This delays decision-making and progress. Internal communication tools, on the other hand, allow for quick and easy communication with a clear record of everything that's been said. This equates to faster transfer and retrieval of knowledge.
There are many other benefits to these tools--like improving company culture, transparency, and security--but the high-level idea is that separating internal and external communication will reduce the number of emails your team receives and boost productivity by allowing for faster information retrieval.
A lot of people make the mistake of using email to delegate, but email platforms aren't built to work in this way. Forwarding emails for assignments makes it incredibly hard to manage the status of action items, their importance, and their urgency.
Moving these types of emails to a project management tool like Asana, Trello, or Monday gives you much better visibility around due dates, each team member's workload and bandwidth, and everyone's most urgent action items. Many email tools integrate with Gmail and Outlook, allowing tasks to be added and assigned right from the email client itself. They will even provide a link to the original email message for reference.
In short, if it's an action item, it likely doesn't belong in your team's inbox.
Here's a simple rule that can easily cut the number of emails and messages your team sends and receives in half: No agenda, no meeting.
Every meeting--whether internal or external--should have an agenda that is created in advance and shared with all participants. Most important, everyone should be able to add agenda items in advance.
This simple rule opens up many opportunities to limit emails and internal messages. Have a question for someone? If it's not urgent, add it to the agenda of your next meeting with them. If you routinely meet with the same people or group of people, you can simply add non-urgent thoughts, comments, or questions to your upcoming meeting agendas and talk it through with them in person.
The best part? In addition to limiting emails and messages in the short term, you'll likely find that these issues you wanted to discuss are entirely irrelevant in a few days time--meaning you just saved you and your entire team some valuable time that they can put to use elsewhere.