Why I’ve stopped caring about how many emails are in my inbox, and why you should, too.
The term Inbox Zero became ingrained in the vocabulary of life-hackers, GTD-ers, and productivity enthusiasts circa 2006 — when productivity writer Merlin Mann coined the phrase in a series of posts on his site 43 folders. From there, it gained quite a following, and also became a sort of productivity status symbol — with people bragging about achieving “inbox zero” all over the internet.
As with any viral productivity concept, an Inbox Zero book was in the works. But neck-deep into a book contract for Inbox Zero, Mann dealt a blow to the exalted idea in an essay talking about why he wasn’t going to continue writing the book.
It’s now become unavoidably clear to me that I’ve been doing each of these things poorly. The job, the making, the pleasing, and, yeah, the being at home. And I can’t live with that for another day. So, I’ve chosen which one has to go. At least in the way it’s worked to date. Which is to say not working.
I’ll let you guess which.
Because, that? That choosing? That’s what my book needs to be about. Not about pleasing people….Not about abandoning your priorities to write about priorities.
My book needs to be about choosing a hard thing and then living with it. Because it’s your thing.
But, that part’s gone missing for just a little too long now. Certainly not missing from my handsome and very practical rhetoric — it’s been missing from my actual life and living. In a quest to make something that has increasingly not felt like my own, I’ve unintentionally ignored my own counsel to never let your hard work fuck up the good things. Including those regular people. Including, ironically, the real work.
I first read these words in real time — in 2011 — when I was quite sure I would be pre-ordering the Inbox Zero book, and that it would change my life. But after reading these words, I became sure of three things:
- Merlin Mann is one of a very short list of my heroes.
- He did more to change the game by not releasing this book than he probably would have if he had released it.
- The email inbox is no longer a useful measure of productivity
The third point is my focus in this essay. While at one time, email served as both a useful mode of doing and measuring productive work, its days of doing so are nearly over. Going forward, the inbox can only serve as the exception, not the rule, when we’re measuring how productive we are. A shift in our thinking is sorely needed.
That shift, I say with only a slight smirk, is the opposite of inbox zero: inbox infinity. It’s a shift of attention away from our inboxes.
The Inbox is the Wrong Focus
In his essay, Mann makes an important distinction between real work and some other stuff that we may think is work — but really isn’t. That is to say, there is stuff (in both our inboxes and our lives) that has all the marks of real work: it takes effort, time, attention, and space on a to-do list. It seems like work to us, but it’s not worth doing in the same way real work is worth doing.
And while at one point in history — maybe before 2006(?) — the email inbox might primarily contain the beginnings of real work, that is most certainly not the case now. The overwhelming amount of emails I see contain stuff that is not top priority — and the ratio of priority work to noise in our inboxes continues to shrink each year. It follows that the more time, attention, and energy that you spend getting your inbox to zero, the less of those valuable resources you’re spending on the things that matter to you.
Think of it this way: how many more people now have a direct line of communication to each other, compared to previous decades? It’s exponentially more. Those people can — with only a few modest physical actions — put stuff in your inbox. And if you’re using your inbox to determine how productive you are, all those people who can just toss stuff in it, are getting an inordinate amount of your time and mental energy.
A shift is needed.
Inbox zero — for the vast majority of us, is the wrong indicator of having done real, important work. The real work is very likely not hanging out in our inboxes. That’s not to say that emails aren’t worth sending or looking at, it’s just to say that so many emails are the equivalent of someone popping their head up in the cubicle farm and shouting about something. They want to be heard, but you’re not obligated to engage with them.
Enter inbox infinity.
Reaching inbox zero is a red herring. The more years that pass with email being a go-to mode of communication, advertising, scamming, and data-mining — the less and less it matters how many emails you pare down your inbox to.
So here’s my bold proclamation: forget your inbox.
Repeat after me: “It doesn’t matter how many emails are in my inbox. Emails alone do not create immediate obligations.”
Maybe repeat it again, for good measure.
In fact, the more time you spend organizing your inbox, the less time you have available for doing work that actually matters. So at this point, I’m embracing an inbox filled with emails — if that’s what happens. I’ll get to the ones I can when I can. But processing my emails no longer holds a top place in my work processes — at least not a place anywhere near the top.
This is no small point, so allow me to extrapolate. A hidden assumption of those who embrace inbox zero is that in some way, most of the work worth doing comes from or revolves around emails. But is that true? How many top priority things have come from email and ONLY email?
Sure, someone may send you an email about something important. But ask yourself this: is this the very first awareness you could have possibly had of this important work that needs doing? In most cases, the answer is “no”.
What’s more likely is that the hugely important email you received could have been prevented by having been proactive and strategic in your work and your communication with stakeholders in your life.
Even better, it’s probably some information pertaining to work that’s being done, and the email is basically a way to ensure that everything is documented, so confusion or disagreement is avoided in the future. But that’s ancillary work; it’s not the important kernel of the project — the intensive effortful work.
Going forward, I’m going to stop using the amount of emails in my inbox as a marker of how productive and organized I am. I’m done wasting my time trying to do something with all the emails, because of all the times I did achieve inbox zero over the years, there was no tangible progress made on the important projects of my life. None, zero.
Kind of ironic, no?
What follows below is how to stop the undue focus on emails, take control of your time and attention, and put the focus back on the work that needs doing — whether anyone has emailed you about or not.
How to Run Inbox Infinity
Is “Inbox Infinity” a kind of sarcastic response to a misguided measure of productivity? Maybe. But within it, there’s a seed of a useful method to help you get out from the long shadow of email. Here are some guidelines:
- Hold your top 5. Keep a list of the top 5 things you are working on, and make sure it is updated whenever one of those things change or are completed. Can it be more than 5? Sure, but understand that it comes at the cost of effective focus.
- Use an effort check. Before you go check your email, ask yourself (and answer honestly) if you have made a satisfactory effort on those 5 things so far today. If the answer is “no”, fix that first, before checking email.
- Manage the Urge. Whenever you sit down to work and feel the urge to check emails, ask yourself if you truly believe that there is something in your inbox which, upon reading it now, could either trump your top 5 things, or significantly change your priorities.
- Timebox your time in you inbox. Set a maximum time each day that you will spend on processing & responding to emails. Break that time up into blocks throughout the day, if that works better. Stick to this unless the emails hold the key to progress on your top 5.
If you do this right, you’ll find that in the long run, you end up receiving fewer emails that cause you to worry or compel you to answer right away. Why? Because the only emails that should worry you are the ones about your priorities — and a few others here and there. And they’ll only worry you if they make you think maybe you’re not properly engaged with those priorities.
For emails you receive that relate to things other than your top 5 projects, but seem urgent, you’re faced with a choice: either answer quickly and feed into the sense of urgency from the sender, or let it sit until you have the time and have worked sufficiently on your top 5 things.
If you really feel pulled to answer an email now, it’s important to ask yourself why. If it doesn’t have to do with your top 5 things, or doesn’t promise to unseat one or more of your top 5, why is it so imperative that you answer now?
Sometimes there will be a legitimately urgent email you can answer quickly, but if you pay close attention to your email habits, those are rare for most of us. The exception to this would be if your job is completely tactical, in which case your only job may be to make sure that you’ve responded to every email query that comes through. Otherwise, those “imperative” emails are indeed rare.
Am I saying that email doesn’t matter at all? No. But what I am saying is that in 9 out of 10 cases, your inbox is the wrong place to measure how productive and organized you are. The best indicator of how productive and organized you are is that:
- you have an updated, small list of your most important projects
- know where you are on each of your top projects, and
- you’re actively working on those top projects first, before attending to other things that pop up (usually in your inbox).
If nothing else, just pay attention to how often you’re going back to your inbox. Unless you’re totally tactical and tied to email, going back to email more than once per hour is probably coming at the cost of doing deep and important work on your top projects. Just having an awareness of that is a great first step.