Inbox Zero Is Not Realistic

Hope wrote a great piece on the virtues of Inbox Zero earlier this month. Andrew and I often talk about our different perspectives on this, so we decided to independently write about them. It turns out that we have more in common than we thought, and our differences are just a matter of definition. Check out Andrew’s post here.

Is Inbox Zero realistic?

In a word… no. Inbox Zero is not realistic. In my opinion, the amount of effort that it would take to keep a pristine inbox is not worth the hassle.

Bailing water to keep from sinking

Do you remember that story about the man who was lost at sea and kept bailing water out of his boat, not realizing that there was a hole in the bottom the whole time? The poor guy didn’t even realize that his efforts were being thwarted all the while. That kind of feels appropriate here. But let’s take it a bit further.

boat with hole

{photo credit: flickr}

If you are lost at sea, water in your boat is your biggest threat to sinking, but it is also the most important resource that you need in order to stay alive. The difference comes down to the source and the quality of the water. Water from the hole in the boat? Bad. Water from the sky in the form of rain? Good.

So instead of just trying to figure out how to get all of the water out of your boat, try to figure out how to only let the good stuff in.

Plug the holes

Hope’s four suggestions are all very helpful, and the first three all deal with stopping the flow of unwanted emails. For me, this is clearly the right way to go.

With the proliferation of smart phones, along with apps for the different content feeds that we subscribe to, I find that it’s easier to manage my notifications solely within these apps. When Facebook tells me that 14 people “liked” my photo album from a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, I don’t need to learn that information “like by like,” or even with a single digest email letting me know of the day’s total. I’ll just check the app. Similarly, when I want to see what’s been happening on Twitter, I go directly to my Twitter app and find out.

Prepare for the rain

When a quality email comes your way, and your inbox is only filled with other quality emails, you’ll know that it’s in the right place. For emails, I tend to judge their quality by whether or not I need to take an action with them. If so, it stays in there until I have completed that action. If there is no action to be done, the email gets put into a folder.

This part can get messy though. What about the times when there is something that you don’t need to respond to right away, but you don’t want to file it away and forget about it either? For me, this is what the inbox is for. It’s a list of emails that are important, and may need me to act on them in the future. It’s my Action Box. Because it’s a small number, usually in the low double digits, I can scan through it regularly if I’m ever wondering what outstanding actions I need to be aware of.

Inbox Zero

It may happen that I achieve Inbox Zero from time to time, but it is not a goal for me in and of itself. My goal is to have my inbox work as a functioning boat that lets me navigate where I want to go and keep from drowning in an ocean of meaningless messages.

On the occasions that I reach Inbox Zero, it’s not necessarily a cause for celebration. For me, it’s a sign that more messages will be coming soon. There are clouds up ahead on the horizon. I don’t fear them. Bring them on.

Let’s make it rain.