Why It Doesn't Matter That You May Never Reach Inbox Zero

Managing your inbox is really about managing your life to spend more time on what you want, and less time deleting and filing.

I had this conversation again the other day: a woman shared her schedule with me, and I noted that she logged back on to work for at least 90 minutes each night.

There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but when I inquired what brilliant strategizing transpired during that second shift, I got a rueful reply: “I’m cleaning out my inbox.”

She asked how to process email more efficiently so she could move on to more enjoyable things. Unfortunately, I had no such tips. For starters, I have hundreds of unread emails in my inbox at any given time. Not only do I not file emails, I haven’t even figured out how to create folders.

But more fundamentally, I think this proposition gets it backward. Email expands to fill the available space. True inbox management means choosing to make space for enjoyable and meaningful things first, and trusting that email will fill in around the edges.

There’s no question that email is both the boon and bane of white-collar existence. On the boon side, I learned how to be a reporter prior to email becoming common, and I remember the inefficiency of calling people, asking for sources and their numbers, calling those people, then having them inevitably call me back when I was on the phone with someone else. Being able to email five sources in the span of 15 minutes, then have three of them get back to me within an hour or so with their availability, saves major time.

On the other hand, the incessant nature is the beast is well documented. A recent McKinsey study found office workers spend 28% of their time dealing with their inboxes.

I think the problem is that many of us have the wrong image in mind. Since much useful information comes in via email, the temptation is to treat the inbox as a task list, to be processed much like a dishwasher must be emptied after it’s filled and used.

But this impulse to empty is misguided because, unlike a dishwasher, an inbox has no meaningful space limit, and can be useful whether it’s emptied or not. In the case of this particular dishwasher, people are also loading it up with things you don’t care about, or need, or that are interesting, but will resolve themselves without your input. Constantly emptying this sort of dishwasher will keep you from ever getting around to making dinner in the first place.

But what if you accept this premise? You will never reach the bottom of your inbox. Perhaps some folks have temporarily achieved that allegedly zen state of Inbox Zero, but it’s fleeting. Most likely, the responses you send while getting down to the bottom of your inbox will generate plenty of email that you’ll then have to process as well, to say nothing of the deluge that will hit you the next day.

Why make much of this victory? Better to realize that anything you haven’t gotten to after about a week or so will either have gone away, or been thrust back upon you by follow-up messages or calls. You can probably stop thinking about it. Or you can just miss an opportunity. Earth will not crash into the sun.

There is no virtue in being productive toward ends that don’t matter.

Here’s where our inboxes get us in trouble, because time spent processing email has an opportunity cost. If you want to truly be productive, the best question to ask is not whether there’s anything lurking in your inbox. It’s whether you’re making progress toward things that are important to you. Are you thinking about how to expand your business? Are you going on that evening bike ride with your family that never seems to happen? Are you writing the books you intend to write?

When you spend more time on these things, you spend less time on email. I see on time logs that if a person goes out to dinner with his family on a Thursday night, he’ll spend less time on email that night before bed. And yet the world keeps spinning. When you face a choice about whether to spend an hour cleaning out your inbox, or mentoring a colleague, remember that your inbox will just fill up again within a few hours--but you’ll never get that hour back.

[Image courtesy of Rachel Gillett]

Add New Comment

9 Comments

  • I do appreciate the author's warning that an empty inbox isn't the end goal. But I disagree that Inbox 0 is a rare and misguided attainment. I achieve it almost everyday, and doubt I'm one of the "few". I'm not a hyper-GTD alpha male, but Allen's approach (do it, delegate, defer, delete) is quite attainable with a little practice. We're taught as kids when waking up in the morning: "messy bed, messy head!" I'm still amazed what making my bed does for my head. And what a clean inbox does for my productivity.

    Want to try Inbox 0 but need a "clean slate"? Delete everything in your inbox, except the ones you know you'll act on today. By "delete", I mean "archive", or set your trash folder to never purge itself. Presuming your email system has reliable and searchable archiving - those emails are still there in case you need them. When new emails come in: do it, delegate, defer, or delete. Now your inbox means something.

  • Chad Craig

    Allen's system assumes you don't have to immediately respond to the majority of your email, an idea which for many of us is flat-out false. I schedule time for email twice every day and still can't keep up. People expect responses within an hour, and if they don't get it, they email again. If I answer emails during meetings, the people in that meeting get upset; if I wait until I'm not in meetings, everybody who emailed me gets upset. There's very little I can delete without handling first. And delegation assumes somebody else on my staff has the capacity to handle the request (which they often don't); perversely, delegation usually results in lots of time spent answering questions and getting my team organized so they can handle it. Allen's system assumes that you will have another chunk of time to go back and handle all those emails you first defer; nobody in my organization ever has that time.

  • Graham Anderson

    I agree with this article. An easy solution for those who like an empty inbox is to select and move all emails to a "keep" folder. I do that when the "unread" hits a 1,000. The search and the flag for follow up features are your friends. Another approach is to have a"deal with this week "and" deal with today "folders but that requires more discipline for it to work

  • Ria Greiff

    Hi Laura, I had the same problem. Thousands and thousands of emails in multiple inboxes. I just let them keep piling up because I felt I'll get to the ones that are important or they will come and find me! My husband was aghast and wanted to find a way to alleviate this problem. Together we came up with an app, MaiTamer that is so darn simple and it clears out thousands at a time. I tossed 10k in like fifteen minutes and guess what. I didn't skip a beat. Thanks for your article. I do agree that it isn't important but somehow there has to be a better way.

  • Eva Klimova

    This is our StartUp from Montreal friends, check this out: http://igg.me/at/voiloktoys/x/6949810 By supporting our project here on INDIEGOGO, you are making our dreams come true and also making a contribution to conserving and protecting our natural environment. Share this campaign! This should be the first thing you do, whether you contribute or not. Please share on your social networks, share by word of mouth, share at home, at work, at school, with your church, with your family and friends, with your neighbours, with everyone!

  • I agree with the core philosophy of this article (that "There is no virtue in being productive toward ends that don’t matter."), but - like most articles written about Inbox 0 - it completely misunderstands the concept. Inbox 0 (as conceived by David Allen) has almost nothing to do with the fleeting achievement of an empty inbox.

    Further, this assumes that all meaningful tasks take place outside of email and that the purpose of email is to fill in whatever space is leftover once the "real" things are done. Whaaa?

    If there's nothing productive in your inbox, that's not the fault of your inbox. Unsubscribe, delete with impunity, and what's left should be things you've committed to do something about. (And, if you are no longer committed to them, then uncommit and delete.) But, simply ignoring your inbox or letting it swell into the thousands and making people call you if they actually want to get something done? That seems like the wrong strategy.

  • Inbox zero is partially about getting emails from your sight and mind as continually looking at them makes you think about them again and clutters the mind. Search and tags in email applications eliminates the need for maintaining multiple file folders. However, a single 'archive' folder that you can drag emails to after you have taken action eliminates the mind clutter and reduces the time spent on filing.