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What is inbox zero, and why you are doing it wrong

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

This week we have been look at emails, how much time are we spending on them, how much are they stressing us out, and what can we do about it?

You have probably heard about inbox zero, mostly in memes and jokes about having zero emails or 20,000 emails in your inbox. For something that is ubiquitous enough to be a joke we know very little about it. It was actually less about dealing with email better, it was about getting rid of administrative tasks to focus on your creative work. Did you know it was part of a larger concept titled 43 folders? You can read more about that here on Merlin Mann's 43 folders website, though he hasn't added to it since 2011 and the link to inbox zero appears to be broken. These days Merlin Mann is more into podcasts. You will probably find more useful information about inbox zero in this New Yorker article.

What is it really about?

Merlin Mann breaks every decision about what to do when faced with an e-mail into five possibilities: delete, delegate, respond, defer, do. There were things in the inbox, but they were things to be actioned. The actions were decisive, and fell into one of these five areas.

Having zero emails in your inbox because you dumped them into a bunch of folders, emails that you will need to go back to later and read and deal with is not actually the point. Having zero emails in your inbox is not the point.

It was really about having a system for dealing with things quickly, rather than agonising over emails, spending unnecessary time in your inbox, or re-reading the same email a few times before actually dealing with the content. Now some correspondence does require re-reading and deep thought, but not the vast majority of your inbox.

Don't partially read a short email while doing something else, decide to deal with it later, re-read it later while still doing something else, then five minutes later read it properly respond to it quickly (in under 2 minutes). You could have done that immediately. Focus on your emails, make a decision, move back out of your inbox, that is the premise of Inbox Zero.

As the writer in the New Yorker article suggests, this system may be nothing more than a coping mechanism for the stress caused by email. If it helps you, if it makes you feel better, then it works. Not better or worse than any other system per se, but if it works for you and reduces your email associated stress then great.

So what should I do?

Merlin Mann's thesis revolves around having time to do creative work, therefore getting away from administrative work like inboxes. However also remember that when Merlin Mann proposed this system he had one email inbox. I am betting that even Merlin Mann has multiple inboxes now and that they are not sitting at zero. The five categories are pretty good though, and remain relevant today - delete, delegate, respond, defer, do.

Mann originally suggested only checking your inbox three times a day, I am unsure that is achievable in 2020. Other life hackers suggest not starting your day with email, but starting your day on important work, deep thinking work, before the interuption of email starts. Certainly you should have a system to keep email in it's place, and a system that does not involve you re-reading your emails on a regular basis.

This goal of finding time for your creative endeavours can be hijacked by those in the family law system to get away from the stress of our inboxes, stressful mostly because it is repetitive and mostly it is not progressing anything.


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