"Inbox Zero" Means Nothing: Why Using Email as an Indicator of Accomplishment Is a Dangerous Game

While it might have been a worthwhile goal 10 years ago, it’s an outmoded and unproductive idea today.
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Publish date:
November 29, 2016
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productivity, anxiety, email, inbox zero

Life offers few moments of pure unadulterated joy: riding a bicycle for the first time, holding your newborn child, quitting your job and immediately deleting your work email account.

I’ll never forget where I was when I vaporized my last email account: It was springtime, a little after 6 o’clock, and I was walking down Crosby Street in Soho after my last day at work. I hadn’t yet traveled a block, and I was already opening up my iPhone to giddily delete my work account.

Are you sure you want to delete this email? All data will be erased.

Promise?

That was also the day I severed ties with Microsoft Outlook forever. I floated home on a cloud.

Of course, one can never actually escape email or the anxiety it inspires. It’s 18 months since that day, and while I now work for myself and use the email client of my choice, my inbox is once again overflowing, bringing along the attendant anxiety and guilt and sorry-I-couldn’t-get-back-to-you-sooners that make email feel like such an all-consuming burden. At this very moment, I’m anxiously awaiting a reply from a message I sent to a potential business partner, putting off responding about an invitation to speak at a conference, and overdue to respond to a thoughtful message from a close friend.

In other words, it’s just another day in the life of my/your/our love-hate relationship with email. As psychologist Sherry Turkle says, “We don’t do email, our email does us.” There's a reason this tweet from Marissa Miller was liked and retweeted so many times.

https://twitter.com/Marissa__Miller/status/703085321643278336

But why? What gives email such a unique power over us? Why do we care so much about reaching a seemingly arbitrary goal like “inbox zero”? Why does it feel so important to studiously respond to everyone? And why do we feel so guilty when we just can’t find the time or energy to do it?

In a weird way, I think email activates the grade-school goody two-shoes in all of us. Think about it like this: Most of us don’t get a lot of positive feedback at work on a daily level, be they indicators of our progress or appreciation for our efforts. In fact, numerous studies have shown that the workplace is where people are least likely to express gratitude or say “thank you.” And when you’re not getting much validation from your colleagues, it’s easy to look to your inbox for affirmation. Or, at the very least, an incremental sense of progress.

Taken from this perspective, inbox zero feels like the equivalent of an A+. You’re organized! On top of things! Keeping up! If you’re at 100-200 unread messages, we can call that a B-. You’re not gonna fail, but you feel a certain amount of anxiety about improving your performance. And if you’re over 1,000 unread messages, well, you’re obviously beyond help — a lost soul who will never graduate from the school of life. It’s time to think deeply about your self-worth and where you went wrong.

Such an analysis is absurd, of course, but I think it gets at a kernel of truth: how tightly we tend to link our email performance to our work performance. So much so that we often use our unread message count as a gauge for how “on top of things” we are at work.

But using your email as an indicator of accomplishment is a dangerous game. It means we’re devoting the bulk of our time to doing busywork rather than doing our best work. It means that we’re passively letting strangers dictate what we do with our day, rather than proactively pursuing our own agendas. It means that we’re confining ourselves to people-pleasing and perfectionism rather than throwing caution to the wind and carving our own paths.

As Carol Dweck, the psychologist who created the concept of a “growth mindset,” has written: “Girls excel at the self-discipline required of students. Indeed, if life were one long grade-school, girls would rule the world.”

Of course, life is not one long grade school. And as Dweck herself argues, the skills that “serve girls so well in the routinized world of school undermine them as they enter the unpredictable and challenge-ridden world of young adulthood.” Not to mention adulthood and the competitive world of the modern workplace, where your job tenure is never assured.

In this daunting and uncertain work landscape, it’s easy to take comfort in the pleasantly predictable routine of email. It’s a safe space — a simple, routinized, controlled environment where the end goal is always clear: A tidy, organized inbox with zero unread messages.

But while “inbox zero” might have been a worthwhile goal back in 2006, when productivity expert Merlin Mann coined the phrase, it’s an outmoded and unproductive idea in 2016, where we send and receive over 205 billion emails a day worldwide — a number that is predicted to grow to 246 billion by 2019.

Email overload isn’t a personal failure; it’s a global problem, and one that requires us to adjust our approach to email. Your inbox can receive an infinite amount of messages, but the time you have in the day never expands. How much you can respond to is necessarily limited.

That’s why it’s time to flip the script on our email attitudes — to unsubscribe from the inbox zero ideal. What if you only responded to the emails that were important to you and ignored the rest? What if you decided to say “no” to every opportunity that didn’t align with your career goals? What if you waited at least 24 hours to respond to all non-urgent emails? What if you treated your email like fan mail and assumed everyone didn’t expect a response?

Would you feel lighter? Would you feel freer? Would you feel more productive?

Forget about people pleasing, and embrace the unbearable lightness of deleting.