Inbox Zero and the Critical Mistake That Saps Productivity

Everyone loves the concept of “Inbox Zero.” The idea is easy: make it a priority to empty your email inbox every day. It feels great. I agree that it feels great. One member of the Get-it-Done Guy community said it’s how he knows he has control over his email.

I respectfully disagree that inbox zero means you have control over your email. You don’t control the content, the order, or the volume of email that arrives. Inbox Zero is basically a reactive strategy—it says that your inbox is so high priority that you should attend to everything in it every day. Since you don’t control the content, that means shifting your brain through several topics just to scan your inbox in a single session. The order you have to think about those topics is determined by the order messages arrive, not by the importance or relevance of the topic to you. Brains don’t do well with rapid, random context switching. You’re using up brainpower just in the process of triaging the whole inbox. This isn’t just a philosophical issues. In “The Power of Full Engagement” by Tony Schwartz cites research that we only have a certain amount of mental capacity between each sleep cycle. Your brain doesn’t care what you use it on. You can use it up triaging your inbox just as easily as you can use it actually doing good, high-quality work. When I’ve paid close attention, I’ve noticed that email saps my actual productivity.

The amount of your email is determined by others, and the amount of time it takes to scan your inbox is proportional to the amount of email they send. Unless you’re in a completely reactive job and the only people who email you are people whose agenda aligns with yours, taking your time to sort through their email can waste a lot of time. I get about 100 emails a day. If I spent as much as 30 seconds on each one, that would take up the equivalent of a month and a half a year. There’s simply no way that’s a productive use of time in aggregate.

I believe that an empty inbox just means you’ve ceded control of your thinking and priorities to everyone who emails you. They control the volume, order, and substance of your attention for the time you’re processing your email. It *feels good* to have an empty inbox, but it also feels good to gorge on Oreo ice cream cake. That doesn’t mean that Oreo ice cream cake is good for you, only that it feels good. Inbox Zero has the extra sugary bonus that since *some* email is an essential part of our job, it’s easy to believe (with no evidence at all) that therefore it’s useful to spend some time on *all* email.

Rather than striving for inbox zero, I advocate learning to identify the truly relevant emails very, very quickly, with an absolute minimum of cognitive load or context switching.

Hint: consider the concept of semantic priming. When you consider a topic (or even just a word), your brain unconsciously brings to mind associated concepts. I’m assuming that this is part of what happens to drain the mental energy that email drains. How would you use semantic priming to your benefit while processing your inbox?

Hint #2: Consider that humans find it easier to choose between 2 things than 3, and that the framing of a choice–e.g. the choice to read/respond to an email versus to ignore it–will dramatically change the amount of mental energy needed to process that email.

Hint #3: Consider the behavior of people who send mail. Contrast their pre-email behavior (stamps, envelopes, etc.) and post-email. What was different? Why? What implications does this have for responding to senders?

The Entrepreneur CEO’s job description

Earlier this week, I began a series of articles on the Harvard Business Review blog site that will deal with the job description of the entrepreneur. The series arose because while people talk a lot about what qualities make up a good entrepreneur, the world is strangely silent on how an entrepreneur should actually spend their time. They always run around like the sky is falling, and they’re busy beyond belief. But doing … what? And how do they know what they’re doing is actually moving the company forward, versus just being whatever activity caught their eye at the moment.

Read my HBR.ORG blog post on Advanced Entrepreneurship: The Entrepreneurial Job Description.

Boxes and pigeonholes

We pigeonhole ourselves by our job title. It makes conversation go quicker, but plays hell with our ability to manage our external image.

I just attended a conference where each name tag had our name and the name of our company. I don’t really have a company name at the moment, other than “Stever Robbins, Inc.” Since that would look weird, I had them put “Just ask…” in the slot reserved for company name.

Some people said, “‘Just Ask?’ I’ve heard of you. Aren’t you some kind of web search engine.” No. I’m not.

Some people said, “What am I supposed to ask?” I thought that was a fine question, and we jumped right into fascinating—if self-referential—conversation.

One woman stands out, however. She said, “Why did you write that on your name tag?” “Because right now what I do doesn’t fit into any neat box and I didn’t want people to leap to assumptions and pigeonhole me in the wrong box.”

Amazingly, she then  ran down her mental list of boxes and tried to fit me in one: Are you a marketing person? No. Are you running a startup? No. Are you a musician? No. When that failed, she rolled her eyes and went on to the next person. Happily, his job title fit neatly into a box and she was able to resume her networking rhythm. What never seemed to occur to her was asking me, “How do you spend your time?” (A question that evokes much more interesting responses than “What do you do for a living?”) That would have led to a real answer. But even then, a real answer sometimes didn’t work. I’m not really doing anything that gives people a good hook to relate to:

Them: What are you doing right now?
Me: Preparing to promote my book on personal productivity.”
Them: Oh. That sounds very interesting. Have you ever read The Four-Hour Work Week? I love Tim Ferriss.
Me: Well, I …
Them: looking over my shoulder Oh, look! There’s someone who has a real job. I’m going to go talk to them. Bye, now.

The next evening at dinner, a young man sat down at our table at dinner and introduced himself. It was, of course, Tim Ferriss. We had a lovely conversation about body-building, self-hypnosis, allergies, and the mind-body interface. We never once discussed personal productivity.

What do you do when you hit epiphany halfway through your career?

Our final performance for Creating Cabaret: Storytelling Through Song was last night. My 1st time singing solo before an audience. The high F#s in my piece are well within my range, but they’re also just at the point where the slightest relaxation of my frame causes them to break. Hit every one, and my ending note (F#) filled the room. My Professor said afterwards, “You caught the bug. I can tell.” She is so right…

During our dress rehearsal, I’d been sitting in front of the stage watching one of the other performers and while I was being a perfectly good little doobie, listening to my compatriot’s song, my sneaky, dastardly brain offered up a thought: “This is where you belong.”

The last time I had that thought, it scared me so much I (inadvertently) used self-hypnosis to wipe out every memory I had of performing, including the seven years I spent doing comedy improv. I think this time I’ll keep it and find out where it leads…