I’m still not convinced Inbox Zero is necessary

My previous Inbox Zero post has generated a lot of disagreement and controversy. I can’t say I didn’t expect it. I’m really torn. Part of me certainly agrees that if you work in a culture where everything of value happens via email and no one is willing to talk face-to-face or by phone, then email may be the only way you can work. But I just don’t believe that you have to be a victim of such a culture.

Email is not just paper mail put online. People use it quite differently. Email is fundamentally different from prior forms of communication in that it comes at virtually no cost to the sender. The size of your inbox is not under your control. It is under the control of those who want to send you stuff. Back when written letters required effort, addressing, stamps, and delays, people did not use them to pass off work, delegate things they could do more easily themselves, and so on.

By removing all barriers to sending, email has made all of us recipients of whatever drivel anyone wants to send. Given the slowness of the medium (even very fast typists can’t type nearly as fast as they can talk) and the poor use of it by most senders, my observation is that it fails to make us more productive in many cases; time spent working towards Inbox Zero increases our activity and feelings of accomplishment while actually reducing measurable results. (The exception to this is when email is used to communicate reference information, shared documents, etc.)

A Couple Of Tips That Help

Am I advocating ignoring messages in your inbox? I guess not. But I am advocating adding back barriers to having people send you email in the first place. Don’t respond immediately. Ask people to come talk in person if they have anything of substance to discuss.  Use short, almost  useless answers (or don’t answer!) for messages that should never have been sent in the first place.

Sorting your inbox by subject or sender can also help you quickly identify the messages you want to respond to, and keep your brain on one topic long enough to make some progress, but it’s only a partial solution, since you are still at the mercy of other people’s subject lines and time-wasting messages. (And besides, Gmail won’t let you sort by sender, only by it’s idea of what a conversation is.)

Challenge Me With Data

Want to challenge me? Log your email for a week. Write down (or put in a spreadsheet) each message that hits your inbox, whether it really required your attention or not, and what job outcome would have been affected had you ignored it. Also note how much total time you spent on email. Then give me a call and we’ll examine the log message by message, and decide how useful your email is. Cries of “I just HAVE to do it all” won’t convince me, but data will. (And though I’m willing to change my mind, I’m going to bet that no one reading this is actually willing to do the experiment for fear of having data that contradicts the justification for their email addiction.)

But saying “I need to process all my email every day” does not regain the time you’re wasting on email, nor does it make you more productive, nor does it change the fact  that email buffets your attention and uses up brain power that then can’t be used for anything else. (See the book “The Power of Full Engagement” for a discussion of how our attention and willpower is limited, and gets used up by activities that require thought, regardless of whether those are the “right” activities or not.)  Email is a communication tool, nothing more. Like any tool, its use should be measured in how much more work it helps you do.

Email is Still an Incredible Time Suck

The fact remains that an hour of email triage a day is six work-weeks a year. That’s an awful lot of time to devote to email unless you can make a convincing case that a month and a half’s worth of your results wouldn’t have been possible without doing it over email.

Personally,  I like saving my brainpower for the things I care about. Not everyone has the same priorities. But as I get older and find I have less energy to spend on trivia, email stands out as the number one drain of my energy that’s high on dopamine punch, but low on measurable results.

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5 Responses to I’m still not convinced Inbox Zero is necessary

  1. Nels says:

    This seems like it would be exhausting, though, to introverts. Having to talk to people on the phone or in person this often. And when people are available. I stop some meetings once I took over charge of them because we spent less time talking over email about what to do than we do trying to schedule meetings over email. But, I get to Inbox Zero daily. I must get less email than most, and I am an introvert and an INFP who gets everything done at home with the door closed. Six weeks on email sounds like nothing to me and a welcome way of using my time. Though I often end up spending less than an hour a day on email since I’m always starting and ending at Inbox Zero.

  2. Robbert says:

    The one thing that really helps me clear my inbox is that I set up a message filter for messages that I can read and discard.
    This filter moves the messages that are typically spam-like-but-not-quite to a separate folder which is by definition not high priority.
    Any messages that go into this folder are by definition messages that I don’t need to reply to. and often don’t need to keep beyond reading them, and perhaps following a link.
    Example messages: Linkedin join requests & discussion updates (BTW, set these for daily), Google calendar daily agenda, newsletters, political beg-letters, and online-purchase-discount offers.

    A seperate filter for facebook (or some other social media) comments help as well. Again these are messages that you read, but are unlikely to respond to by email itself.

    For the rest it helps me a lot to clear my inbox to empty. if only by moving all the mails I need to respond to into a separate folder and moving the rest I need to keep to archive. Anything else I might as well delete immediately (which in my case is a separate folder again… guess I’m not quite ready to let go).
    This way I know that when my computer tells me I have unread messages, these are really messages I haven’t read yet.

  3. Keith says:

    Stever, I discovered your blog through the “Sparks” feature of Google+. Very nice!

    I’ve recently taken up Inbox Zero, and I can see from your opinion of it that perhaps you’ve been misled by some of the more recent pundits and other GTD idiots who have misinterpreted Inbox Zero as “Zero emails in my inbox.” In reality, the original Inbox Zero philosophy posed by Merlin Mann is not about “Zero emails in my inbox,” but rather “Zero emails in my brain.” This action-based approach (for every email: delete, delegate, respond, defer, or do it) doesn’t necessarily get everything done in and of itself. Rather, it puts that unknown out of your brain, so you can later go through your action-categorized inbox and handle everything with confidence.

    Had you considered this approach to Inbox Zero before?

  4. Stever says:

    Keith – Yup. I understand that approach. My point is that even traiging those emails is, itself, a burden. If you spend half an hour a day doing it, that’s 3 weeks a year. That’s almost a month. Personally, I can’t justify spending an entire month triaging email, which is why I concentrate on finding ways to get people who want to email me to self-police. I agree that the key is getting email out of your brain, but my preferred method is by making email a secondary, less-important medium. This post was mainly about why I believe many people’s productivity is actually hurt by blind devotion to the keep-inbox-empty idea. (I agree wholeheartedly with Mann’s “Zero email in brain” philosophy, which is a restatement of David Allen’s “Zen mind” idea of a paper inbox.)

    I’m not saying that you don’t have important, critical email in your inbox. I am saying that if you allow those relatively few emails to push you into a habit that sucks up a month of your time each year, overall your productivity is hurt, not helped.

  5. Janus Daniels says:

    “Log your email for a week. Write down (or put in a spreadsheet) each message that hits your inbox, whether it really required your attention or not, and what job outcome would have been affected had you ignored it. Also note how much total time you spent on email. Then give me a call and we’ll examine the log message by message, and decide how useful your email is.”
    And how much might you charge for this awesome personal service? ; )

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