Two important questions about Inbox Zero

Overflowing mail inboxes
Photo by Efe Kurnaz / Unsplash

It's safe to say that nobody enjoys email. Far from it — people seem to be bullied by email. It's always there, pouring messages that you didn't necessarily ask for into your life. It pushes you around, and there doesn't seem to be much you can do to push back. It's a huge part of academic life, and at this point it's hard to imagine email going away any time soon. (Experiments with Slack, MS Teams, and the like for communication during the pandemic seem to have merely led us back to email.) So, in the spirit of the Summer Challenge, it's crucial to get email under control so we can experience more control and empowerment overall in our work.

The ultimate expression of that control is what I've referred to as inbox zero. This is the concept of having your inboxes (including but not limited to email) with nothing or almost nothing in them at all times. I've written about this before, and both then and now, it elicits a broad range of responses — mostly negative, a mix of disbelief, dismissal, shame, and anger. Email touches a nerve. I think we need to address the inbox zero concept before we go any further in the Summer Challenge. Specifically, here's two questions that seem to be at the heart of the matter.

Is Inbox Zero possible?

This one's easy: Yes, it's possible. But it's also not easy, because for many, email is difficult to control and there are significant behavior changes that need to be adopted to make it happen. It's like asking, Is having 0% body fat possible? Well, yes, people do it all the time; but for most it's tremendously hard work that may not be worth the effort (see the second question). It's the same with managing email and having a zero inbox. For those who receive 100+ emails a day and have 1000+ emails sitting in their inboxes right now, asking you to have inbox zero sounds like asking you to high jump to the moon. We never want to make light of the cost of getting to this level of control over email.

But at the same time... it's possible. Not only that, I think anybody can do it. I don't know every person's situation, but I think the ingredients for having inbox zero are (or at least include):

  • A system for where to put things. My kids sometimes "clean their rooms" by bulldozing everything on the floor into the closet. At first glance, it looks like they accomplished a lot; then I look in the closet. Likewise, the purpose of inbox zero isn't really to have nothing in the inbox; it's to have everything in the inbox clarified as to its meaning and all the information in each email put into a place where it's most useful. To do that, you have to have the places set up: Folders, labels, and so on.
  • A simple workflow for putting things in the right place. And if you're going to have those places set up, you also have to have some simple, quick decision making process for putting things where they belong. Again with my kids, I've tried to solve the room-cleaning problem before by installing bins in their rooms. But if the kids themselves don't have an internalized habit of knowing which bin to use for books versus toys versus clothes and so on, and if it's not easy to use them, then my kids won't want to use them and the bins are just taking up space. The workflow for making those decisions has to be simple enough for a child to understand and quick enough so as not to take up hours per day. This is why the Clarify process is so central to everything in the Summer Challenge and GTD.
  • Limiting the sources of email. I've had a couple of social media interactions with folks who say they don't have the time during the day to keep their inboxes zeroed out. When I've followed up, they've said they receive 100+ emails per day, and managing all of those as I've suggested would be far too time consuming. I understand that concern; when I was department chair, I was inundated with email (the entire time, but especially during the opening weeks of the pandemic). In trying to deal with the volume, I realized that I needed to take action to prevent receiving email in the first place. I wrote a bit about this here (in the context of being department chair) and also here (in the context of teaching). The common idea is: If you are drowning in email, consider how you might cut it off at the source. In the first link above, for example, I wrote about discovering that my email was being used as the contact for any and all communications to and from the Math Department. Changing this, by removing my email entirely from the department website, probably cut my email volume by at least 10% (and had no negative effect on my job performance). If I'm having trouble keeping up with newsletters to which I've subscribed, then unsubscribe from some of them (like, half of them at least). If I'm getting buried in reply-all chains from a committee, I should probably approach the chair of the committee and ask them to step in and do something about it. (Why should I have to deal with other people's out-of-control email behaviors?) See if you can turn a few of those faucets off.  
  • Decisive action with email, including not acting on emails. The Clarify process is intended to be, for the most part, a rapid-fire way of knocking out emails. In my view, it should take no more than 15 seconds per email to simply decide what to do with it and then get it into the right place. Is it spam? Delete it on sight and move on. Is it non-actionable but potentially useful later? Get it into the right folder/label immediately and move on. Keep moving! Where your time does get spent in more significant amounts is when the email does have actionable stuff in it. But even then, you don't have to act on it right away. If an email can wait till later, snooze it. If the actionable stuff can be done in 2 minutes or less, do it now. If it will take more time to craft a reply, put it on the Next Actions list with an @email context and do it when you have time. You do not have to reply on the spot if it takes more than 2 minutes! (If somebody needs a reply in less than two minutes from the time of the message being sent, they should be calling you on the phone, not emailing you.) Processing 100 emails in this way should take about half an hour. Process, process, process in rapid succession and don't overthink it. I understand it takes courage sometimes to delete an email or simply abstain from responding. All I can say is, I am confident that you have that courage within you, and it gets easier the more you practice.

So again, Inbox Zero is possible.

But is Inbox Zero desirable?

Just because we can have Inbox Zero, does it mean that we should?

That's a lot harder to answer. In fact, I won't give an answer because it's a judgment call. It's certainly desirable for me, because I am a control enthusiast and don't like the thought of stuff sitting around unprocessed in my email or anywhere else. Inbox Zero for me means that I can relax and focus on the stuff that really needs my attention, and I feel good about what I am doing as well as what I am not doing. I believe that a lot of my colleagues in higher ed would benefit greatly from giving it a shot. In fact I maintain that a large part of the existential exhaustion from last year might be attributable to poor email hygiene.

You may disagree, and that's fine. Or, you may resonate with the concept of Inbox Zero but you're still new to the ideas of the Summer Challenge and need time to get there. Productivity is a very personal thing and I am not attempting to evangelize people into the Kingdom. You do you. I would just ask, if you are not on board with this idea and choose to go a different direction with email, do it because you have some other effective way of keeping email communication under control and knowing what task to do at different times and in different contexts. Don't let email control you because of misconceptions, learned helplessness, fear, or laziness. Be honest with yourself about that.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.