Things I Don’t Do: Inbox Zero

Just like you can’t make good management decisions without understanding your environment, you can’t make good personal productivity decisions without understanding yourself and your own productivity problems. One of the things I argue in Taming the Work Week is that blindly following anyone’s productivity advice- even mine!- is not a recipe for success. You have to do some introspection and understand what is actually hampering your productivity, then consider the advice and decide whether or not it will help address your particular problems. It is also worth reconsidering your methods from time to time, to see if the situation has changed, warranting a change in methods.

My favorite example of these principles is email, and specifically the common focus on getting to “inbox zero.”  I know that many people find this a useful goal, and I don’t argue with its success for them. For me, though, it would be a waste of time.

I cannot remember the last time I was at inbox zero anywhere. It was probably the day I opened the account. A full inbox does not bother me. In fact, I rather like it, as it gives me a place to search when I have a vague memory of an old discussion with someone about X. Honestly, my email inbox is sort of like an external memory bank. Deleting it all would hurt my productivity, not help it.

I tend to process email as it comes in, and either do what needs doing right away or add an item to the appropriate to do list. Recently, I realized this system was getting overwhelmed by an uptick in email volume caused by me deciding to branch out in some new business directions. I floundered for a bit, and then decided that adding a couple of new labels in my main email account would solve the problem. I added an “attention needed” label, a “save for later” label, and a “business receipts” label and am once again at peace with my email. No draconian (and time consuming) inbox clean out required.

Interestingly, I used to use labels and folders a lot more. I dropped that practice when search techniques got good. I am old enough to remember- and have formed some email habits- in the days when text searches weren’t very powerful. Those days are long gone. I am often amazed at what even a crappy search term can retrieve from my inbox. Once I realized that had happened, I stopped spending my time and energy manually categorizing emails. The search function was literally better than my categorizations.

But, my situation changed again, and now labels are back, albeit in a different form than I originally used them. Maybe someday my situation will change yet again, and striving for “inbox zero” will make sense to me. I doubt it, but know better than to rule it out. As Heraclitus said, “everything changes and nothing stands still.”


  1. ARC said:

    This makes total sense, and is something that astounded me when Gmail first came out. I was all excited to sign up for an account, and then realized I just didn’t GET how it was supposed to work.

    Labels instead of folders? No delete button? An Archive button that made emails just disappear into the ether?

    Granted, some of these features were changed later to accommodate the more “traditional” ways people process email in programs like Outlook, but I slowly realized that there are lots of people who don’t think about email in the same way I do – they have your philosophy above.

    I used to be a strict Inbox Zero person but that is because I was using my Inbox as a to-do list. I’m trying to separate those now but haven’t quite figured out a to-do-list that works well for me so I’m in this weird transition phase where my personal email is a mess and I’ve got this nagging feeling I’m going to miss something. I’m still Inbox-Zeroing for work until I can get a consistent system down for to-dos.

    But I will say that it is going to take me a LONG time to get over that panicky feeling I get when I see a full inbox 😀

    December 30, 2014

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