Inbox Zero Is Less Than Zero to Her

Monday, May 23, 2016

Writing for the New York Post, Sara Stewart throws the "BS" flag on "Inbox Zero" -- something I briefly advocated and (even more briefly) achieved some years ago. She advocates "inbox whatever," instead.

Studies show that it takes an undue amount of time to return to whatever you were doing when you take time out to read some (usually unnecessary and unsolicited) email, delete it and redirect your mind to where it was before. One study, cited in a story about how some of us may just be more attached to our techno-identities than others, quoted a researcher who studied distraction and email. "When someone drops everything just to get an unread count back to zero, productivity might be taking a hit. 'It takes people on average about 25 minutes to reorient back to a task when they get interrupted,' [a researcher] says."

Plus, if we're talking about work email, consider this: Having an empty inbox has zero effect on your salary. You're not getting paid to erase emails all day -- unless your job title is Deleter of Emails, in which case, poor you. [format edits, links dropped]
In fairness, I think Stewart misses the point of Merlin Mann and others, that achieving this goal can be a way to worry less about email. She still makes a good point: If you're spending loads of time "managing" your email, you're wasting that time. (And you're missing the real point of having an empty inbox.) If this is true, I agree that you should try something else. I did until recently, but it was a very unsatisfactory default.
Personally, I have found my own modified version of "email bankruptcy" to be easy to implement and maintain. I neither must schedule "purges" as Stewart advises nor miss out on interesting tidbits that my friends send me that I am too busy to read at the moment. I like not feeling inundated or unsure that I am missing something important. My email counter has also become somewhat useful: It allows me to skip email checks altogether if it is zero and I already either have my email open in a browser tab or am using my phone at the time.

-- CAV

P.S. My own sight modification of "email bankruptcy" has been, for my busiest two accounts, to filter most non-spam commercial email to a "crap" folder. This solves what I call the "ToysRUs" problem: Either I can't easily (or at all?) unsubscribe, but GMail (for example) won't let me send it to the Spam folder -- or I might want to glance at the emails, but not every time I check. This folder I check every couple of days or so, and usually mass-delete.


Steve D said...

The answer seems pretty straightforward. I leave my inbox as is, scan through the headings and authors of several hundred emails at the beginning of each day (in 2 or 3 minutes), read the emails that are important (very few) and leave the rest unopened forever.

Every so often I manually archive everything in my inbox to a personal folder.

Gus Van Horn said...


That's quite similar to to "email bankruptcy", except that you aren't archiving the unreads at the moment you check them. I like cleaning out my inbox mainly because I have a few things, like email from my kids' daycare, that update daily and are easier to follow in a less-than-full inbox.

I think the essential point is finding a way to satisfy yourself that you're not missing anything important, while also keeping control of your time. There are a few ways to do this, even including "inbox whatever".


RT said...

At my work-place, the recommendation is to check email twice a day: once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Each time, the inbox is reduced to zero and all items that are not answered but still actionable are transferred to a to-do list. Co-workers are told not to expect a turn-around time of 1 business day for email. Otherwise they should text (or call, but they don't do that). There's an attempt to train clients toward this too.

Some folks need to respond more quickly to service requests, but they usually have some system -- e.g. a support request system -- where the requests are entered.

Not everyone is able to stick to twice a day, but many get by with two morning checks and two afternoon checks. That way, you get a 2 hour turnaround for anything. The one thing that the system kills is an email thread that goes to and fro as a discussion, but really ought to be a conference call.

The basic philosophy is that email should be used as a mechanism where to-and-fro takes a few hours, and if that is not acceptable another medium should be used.

Gus Van Horn said...


That's a very sensible policy, and I like how your workplace handles communication channels in terms of required turnaround time. I have always regarded different methods as better-suited for different situations for my own use and try to achieve this in practice.

This reminds me of another tweak I did, for my "communications sanity" project, of which cleaning up email was but a part: I finally thought to see whether I could change my phone's notification settings (aside from audio: I had already made it silent for everything but calls). I could, and so I now have better use of a blue diode on my phone that serves as a notification flag. I was able to take email off of this so I'd get that light ONLY if something time-sensitive (that wasn't a call) came.