Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Inbox Zero Isn't Worth the Effort

An overflowing inbox

Email is both a boon and a problem. It makes communicating easier, but at the same time many of us struggle with the sheer volume of email that we receive each day.

For many people struggling (or even succeeding) with productivity, inbox zero seems to be a common goal. It’s a holy grail. It’s one of the pinnacles of being productive. And not achieving inbox zero causes some people, including a few I know, a lot of stress and anxiety.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, inbox zero refers to an empty inbox. It’s a sign of victory. It means that you’ve been able to process your emails (whatever that means), and you’ve shucked off the cognitive weight that comes with email overload.

People put a lot of time and effort into reaching inbox zero. There are countless blog posts, articles, and probably even ebooks on the subject. A lot of words and a lot of thinking have been plowed into that subject.

The problem is that inbox zero isn’t worth the effort.

Yes, I said it. Inbox zero isn’t worth the effort. And I mean it, too.

Why do I think that? Trying to achieve inbox zero is like pushing back at a slow, steady stream of water with a squeegie. As soon as you cleared out your inbox, it gets innundated again. You enter a continuous loop of deleting emails. It’s a lot of time and effort. Time and effort that’s better spent doing other things. Like real work.

You need to accept that there will always be something in your inbox. Often, several somethings. You can’t escape it. But you can take steps to minimize the number of those somethings in your inbox. How? Here are a few suggestions:

Cut down on the amount of email you receive. That could mean unsubscribing from email newsletters and alerts from retailers and news outlets. For many people, that should eliminate a lot of what goes into their inboxes and also what they’ll never read. Speaking of which …

If it’s older than a few days, delete it. That number of days is up to you to decide. I tell people that if an email’s been in their inbox for five days chances are theyll never get around to reading it. Do a bulk delete. Your inbox will thank you.

Archive emails that you’ve read. If you need to keep certain emails, then get them out of your inbox once you’ve read and replied to them. Just about every email application, whether on the web or on your desktop or mobile device, lets you organize your messages using folders. And most of them have decent (or better) search functions. With all that, there’s no need to clutter up your inbox any more than it needs to be cluttered up.

Not reaching inbox zero isn’t the end of the world. It doesn’t mean you’re not productive. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It doesn’t mean you’re not disciplined. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with not reaching inbox zero.

If you take a smart, measured approach to managing your email, inbox zero won’t matter. The effort that you would have expended trying to reach that magical state can be put to better use tackling more important, more meaningful, and more satisfying work.

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