Is A Cluttered Inbox Bad For You?

Or should we all just believe in The Gospel of Not Caring?

"I am a ridiculously neat and organized person, and smugness suits me just fine, so the idea that my in-box could be as tidy as my closet has great appeal, " Sam Grobart confides to Businessweek. "But I’ve tried all the big services, and I’m here to preach a new gospel: the Gospel of Not Caring."

The Gospel of Not Caring, he goes on to say, is founded on the most fundamental of facts: "emails aren't objects." Unlike, say, a renegade remote control that's looking at you askance from across the coffee table, they don't need to be fiddled with to satisfy the feng shui of your desk, sofa, bathroom, or wherever you do your best emailing.

This is, from Grobart's language, a Gospel in incurious inquiry:

"Who cares if my in-box has 16,000? Who cares if my "All Mail" folder has more than 100,000?"

If we may venture an inference, that devil-may-care inboxing evidences a different sense of function with the email. It's kind of like going for a walk in the park: You might want to step to it and get your heart rate going, but your partner just wants to have a slow stroll.

In the same way, Grobart says that he uses his Gmail accounts as a "second memory" and "private Wikipedia" allowing him to search through email address and phone numbers without having to fuss with folders, labels, or other groundwork. While this is certainly true, not everyone uses their email in the same way.

Most people use email as a terrible to-do list: That was the insight that prompted Gentry Underwood to leave his gig at Ideo and cofound Orchestra, whose post-pivot app Mailbox recently got them acquired by Dropbox for a reported $100 million.

You could compare the way you use your inbox to the way you eat your lunch—it's not the meal itself, but the function of it that predicts your productivity.

Hat tip: Businessweek

[Image: Flickr user Rob]

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  • Paul H. Burton

    Did you feel the collective cringe in the Mailbox cubes at Dropbox? A founder is telling the world via a national business publication that apps that organize and leverage inboxes as functional to-do lists (like Mailbox) are worthless! Well, as you point out above, Dropbox thought the idea had some merit - to the tune of a $100M.

    But, let's not just shoot the messenger. Let's also take aim at the message: Emails aren't objects.

    More collective cringing because it's dead wrong on two levels:

    1. Emails do, in fact, take up space. They are transportable. They can be lost and found. They may be really small compared to a shirt in the closet, but they are certainly objects.

    2. More (most?) importantly, people treat them like objects. In particular, they treat many of them like to-dos, because they ARE to-dos. And that's the fundamental point. Inboxes aren't some giant garbage can into which everything gets tossed, only to be opened when we need to use our "secondary memory." That's the purpose of the Trash folder inside the inbox!

    Methinks Mr. Grobart is involved in some new venture surrounding email and, in particular, a tool that mines the inbox for ??? (probably data to use against us - very Googlesque.) But, more interestingly is this whole movement way from Inbox Zero to the "Gospel of Not Caring."

    Might I suggest a different approach: Why not diagnosis the problem first before we fix it. Check out if you want to really see the next big thing in email.

  • Brian Clark

    I think you're confusing Sam Grobart (a writer for BusinessWeek) with Gentry Underwood, whose company was acquired by DropBox.

  • Paul H. Burton


    You're right! My bad. Too quickly scanned the article and missed the transition from talking about Grobart's confessing his neglectful information management to Underwood's Mailbox founding. Thought he (Grobart) was one of the 13.