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Work Smart

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.

[Image courtesy of Rachel Gillett]

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.