# Two important questions about Inbox Zero

The Inbox Zero concept elicits a broad range of responses from academics, mostly negative. Here are the two most important questions we can ask about it.

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.
• 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.