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?