Inbox zero is a curious thing. If you believe the many productivity articles that hail the widespread benefits of clearing out one’s inbox than most of us are doomed. I admit that I don’t quite prescribe to the notion that an empty inbox is the cure for lackluster productivity. None of my inboxes, work or personal have ever reached inbox zero, although I don’t keep unread emails around for very long, especially work emails. I tend to favor a slight hoarding approach to email because as someone in the academic world, I never know when I am going to need to find an essay I emailed to myself for a scholarship application or the contact information for a professor from my days as an undergraduate.
The quest for inbox zero on the surface seems like a decent idea given how many of us, especially in knowledge-based fields, are inundated on a daily basis with email after email. I can appreciate someone who is conscientious and wants to make sure that everyone who takes the time to message you in the first place receive a prompt response. More often than not though, I hear from colleagues that they simply cannot focus on anything else until they see that inbox zero icon in their email client. I have known friends who made sure to go through their entire inbox either first thing in the morning after waking up so that they could put out any fires that needed taking care of before they made it into work, and others who routinely stayed up and instead of reading a book before bed, or just unwinding to make sure that they reached inbox zero before the next day’s flurry of emails “ruined” it all, and the process had to begin all over again. These types of behaviors remind me of growing up, my mother bent over the sink at 11:30pm, making sure that there were no dishes left in the sink (no dishwasher in my house growing up, unless you count mom). There was no logical reason why she felt compelled to do this every single night. On one hand it was certainly productive. All dishes were clean and ready for the next day, yet she was spending her precious time before bed doing this most mundane of tasks, as if her decency as a wife and mother depended on it. Inbox zero also feels like one of those tasks that way too much attention is paid to, when really, it is a rather fruitless effort because there will always be more emails, just like there will always be more dirty dishes. It doesn’t mean that a strategic triage of incoming emails is not necessary, and ok, not every single promotional email for a Sandals resort vacation needs to be kept for all eternity. But feeling like you cannot focus, or get on to doing real, valuable, life-changing work in favor of clearing your inbox day after day, really seems like the opposite of a productive and fruitful endeavor.
This brings me to what I believe the quest for inbox zero is truly about. I argue that most people want to be productive, do a good job at home and at work, and be efficient in how they spend their time. Even the most efficient among us suffer from moments when we are just tapped out and reach for the low hanging fruit. This may not necessarily result in full blown procrastination, but a less than concerted effort to focus on less important tasks. And because our brains are wired to receive little hits of dopamine every time we accomplish something, achieving inbox zero is a perfect way to procrastinate on the big, time-consuming, but important tasks. Inbox zero becomes the scapegoat for the moments in time when we are just not all there to tackle more difficult tasks, and because it feels good (darn biology!) we continue doing so even when the task itself is always a case of diminishing returns. Just like there is no midnight inspection of our kitchens, there is no true gold star for an empty inbox. It is important to realize that focusing on doing work that is truly important, rather than having an obsession with the communication system that is supposed to make such work easier, is much more rewarding in the long-run than an empty inbox will ever be.