The Case Against Inbox Zero

When I started researching productivity for 168 Hours, some people mentioned the concept of “Inbox Zero” — that is, the zen-like state that ensues from having absolutely no emails in your in-box. They have all either been deleted or filed away, or otherwise cannot be acted upon. Some people have even taken screen shots when they’ve achieved this elusive state, much as nature photographers stalk snow leopards. Sightings are rare. When they occur, one must pounce.

I have to say, while I think Merlin Mann is great on issues of managing your time, my reaction to the concept was pretty negative. At first it was because I have realized I will never, ever achieve Inbox Zero. I currently have 42,883 emails in my inbox. I have no filing system whatsoever. This 42,883 total includes, at the moment, 1134 unread ones.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that not only do I not wish to pursue Inbox Zero, there are plenty of good reasons not to.

First of all, email storage is pretty much unlimited these days and deleting emails takes time. If something is clearly spam, I’ll do a quick delete but I don’t mind leaving other things sitting there. I find it no more bothersome than having papers on my desk, and I have never had a clean desk. Putting things in files also takes time, and so I don’t bother. If I ever decide I need something, I don’t have a hard time finding it — the major commercial email providers all allow for rapid (and pretty good) search. When email starts hitting my inbox rapidly, it is possible that things I mean to respond to will fall off the front page (and hence out of the active parts of my mind). But I usually take a few minutes toward the end of the day to scroll down and deal with things. If I intend to deal with it in a few days, I’ll make a note on an old-fashioned piece of paper.

But here’s the more crucial part of all this: I think putting energy into the pursuit of an empty inbox gives people a false sense of accomplishment. This is very similar to the false sense of accomplishment people get by making their houses “clean” at some point in time. The house will just get dirty again, and your inbox will just fill up.

This false sense of accomplishment is dangerous because it makes you feel like you’re working when, in fact, you’re not really working — if you define working (as I like to) as activities that are advancing you toward your professional goals. At your retirement dinner, no one is going to talk about your great system for filing emails. They’ll want to talk about what your work has accomplished. Email is not work. It is a tool for doing your work. Better to throw that same energy into accomplishing something that matters.

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