How Zero is Your Inbox?

How Zero is Your Inbox?

9 min read

And, ultimately, who cares? The problem with email isn't the size of your inbox but the culture of scarcity in our workplaces.

I had an interesting debate on Twitter with some good online friends about the idea of Inbox Zero. I had just started an experiment with regularly clearing out my work and personal inboxes so I was mostly pro, most people in the discussion were leaning anti, but we all agreed that any system had to jibe with your life and your personality. After all, torturing yourself to keep an immaculate inbox hardly sounds worthwhile, and a system designed to replace another system isn't any less a system, is it?

Zero … a hell of a brand idea. (Photo by Sam Moghadam on Unsplash) [Description: a glass bottle of Coca-Cola Zero]

The clear time equation for a method like Inbox Zero is that you have to spend less time feeding the system than the time you get back. With email, the issue is that most people get into a state of constant distraction, looking at their phone or screen(s) for a new arrival which may or may not be there, then answering or sorting that email, which might lead off on a whole new set of tasks. Even if there's no actual email, it might take more than 20 minutes to get back to that previous flow.

Many people have the self-control, or use software tools, to avoid regularly checking email, but it might not be that simple for everybody. I first tried IB0 on the advice of others because any to-do list, which I was treating my inboxes as, is a source of anxiety for me. I knew I might forget to check the inbox, or forget some key task. My job at my museum requires me to deliver results to many different teams on different schedules, so keeping track of everything is key. IB0 seemed like a worthy lifehack to try for this Aquarian contrarian.

Oh, it's 0. (Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash) [Description: a panel with the number zero on a wooden surface]

Other reasons I felt email was the right timesuck to tackle:

  1. Email comes at us all the time, whether related to work or personal matters, whether personalized requests or blasts and newsletters. We're outnumbered by the sources sending us email, and to quote Radiohead, gravity always wins. Just as with social media, the result is attention scarcity.
  2. Our work and personal projects expand to fill up available time, so there's rarely an opportunity for meta-organization, work aimed at making work easier. Companies and bosses rarely recognize these needs, so we end up with time scarcity.
  3. While there are tools which can manage or automate comprehending our emails, they can have a high learning curve and require a lot of confidence and often a good IT department or colleague, or an assistant for a manager (maybe you're the assistant) as an email backup. Even if we like these helpers they may not always work for a shared workplace. And even if we have a set of tools we really like and which work well together for us, all it takes or one of the tools to fold or change in a way we don't like for the whole thing to come crashing down. Call it resource choice scarcity.
  4. It takes a certain personality to aggressively demand and protect the above—attention, time, resources. For every person who says I just delete emails or I refuse to attend any meeting I didn't set up myself there are many more of us who haven't learned those abilities or don't have the job security to ignore emails, or who are help-oriented and have a strong internal tendency to make themselves available to colleagues. Others of us don't like to compartmentalize or haven't yet learned how to say no, and the advice from individuals who seem to have worked this out can come across like judgmental lifehacking, however well-intentioned. Even setting up specific times to check email requires effort and practice. Let's call this mastery scarcity.
  5. I'll even add this bonus: agency scarcity. Slack is an example of this, as it washed over some workplaces like a tsunami—a relentless wall of communication—without anyone having the choice to opt out. It's led to a backlash—Slack is no better than, or maybe worse than, email (and has plenty of problems of its own, besides)and a backlash to the backlash—hey, lay off Slack, if you're still on email then your workplace is the problem! (I won't wade into the Slack debate except to say that to me, Slack is fine, but it requires a critical mass of enthusiasts to be worthwhile.) Workplaces are indeed the problem, but many people aren't able to exercise enough agency to have their communication preferences (phone, F2F, email, messaging) respected.
There's never enough … time. (Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash) [Description: a large number of analog clocks]

What all of these have in common is that being more human at work requires a full stack of tools, a plan, a certain personality, a degree of psychological safety, and lots of pushback. And it's unlikely that any person you're in contact with has the same set of relationships to scarcity, leading to misunderstanding, jealousy, and hard feelings.

In nonprofits, with legacy cultures, painfully low budgets and resources for mid- and entry-level (and frontline) staff and technology, and a focus on objects and audiences (and not staff needs), all of these can be even more acute.

How did things get to this point?

From (Inbox) Zero to (Attention) Hero?

Late capitalism requires constant contact—we have to be prodded, tested, polled, and pinged to provide data to the Matrix of surveillance capitalism (keeping mind that there was no golden age of capitalism for most people). Interacting with the world requires us to be full of contact. We can usually control one or two things but that's all—the size of the inbox but not our meeting schedule, for instance. We can manage how much information we take in, but not how we respond to it Call it the Workplace Incompleteness Theorem, or to quote the comedian Steven Wright, "You can't have everything, where would you put it?"

For all of my intended zerosity, ever since that first burst of zero-ness my inboxes have crept up in size over the past few months, leading to weekly battles to get them back into the single digits. Has that helped? For me, the feedback loops of seeing a very small inbox have been useful, but the enduring usefulness of GTD for me is getting things out of unscheduled, to-do-list purgatory. And as I've spent the time on IB0, I've spent less time managing other tools (which I describe at the end of this post), which have sprawled in response. Ecosystems giveth and taketh away.

We've entered a desert of attention, time, resource, training, and agency. (Image by Thorsten Frenzel from Pixabay) [Description: a dried-out lake bed)

We adopt systems because it's in the Matrix's interests for us to do so. We spend time, energy, and money taking classes, reading books, subscribing to newsletters, buying or renting software, and advising each other. Medium, which I write on, is probably 60 percent lifehacking. And most systems reinforce the existing orders of racism, sexism, etc. They allow for shared fictions, as described in Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens.

To be human is to be flexible. Good systems respond to feedback and let us do so. Enforced scarcity does not. So it's time to say, "this works for me. YMMV." And to interrogate any system for its humanism. "Only a Sith deals in absolutes," say the Jedi, who never found a lecture they didn't like.

The organizational need here is to take these scarcities seriously. Overstuffed activity levels, unsupported by fairly-paid people and adequate resources, put staff perpetually at a disadvantage—situations mirrored in freelance work situations and personal lives. I'd like to say that organizational leadership is going to figure this out, but I think they already know it—the Matrix is just aligned against humanist workplaces. Staff groups will need to repeatedly make the case for reasonable workloads to managers, directors, even up to the board level. And if reason doesn't work, labor organization might be the next step.

When we're not giving time to what's real, we feed the Matrix—our inaction makes us angrier from the denial of our own agency. So don't give your colleagues a hard time about the size of their inboxes. Better to spend the time finding out their communication preferences and respecting them. Give people a (gentle) user's guide to the best way to work with you. Support your overworked colleagues and don't contribute to their overburdening, especially staff who are lower in the org chart or, for museums, working front of house.

We have nothing to lose but our scarcity.

My personal toolbox

I use the following software and systems:

  • At work: Office with Outlook (increasingly using the improving OneDrive rather than Google Suite for shared documents), and Adobe programs
  • Airtable (replacing a combo of Asana and Trello) for overall project organization, though so far I'm just using it for myself. I really like it but want to be more of a power user, considering I'm paying an annual fee for features like Gantt charts
  • Google Suite for calendars, email, and sharing documents with others outside of work
  • Evernote for longer and/or enduring note-keeping. I also pay for premium to take advantage of larger notes (I add photos to evernotes) and note history. I try to review my Evernotes once a week, with a more thorough dive every month, lest they become just digital closets of old ideas.
  • Dropbox Plus for backups and sharing documents with myself in different situations, though I'm holding off on using Dropbox in its new incarnation as a workplace ecosystem
  • Zapier to find automations between the above, such as getting Airtable schedules and Evernote reminders into my Google Calendar where I can see all times and dates together in one place; I also bring items from shared office spreadsheets into Airtable.
  • Freedom, which I pay for, to block the internet and time-sucking apps, but since my writing and note-taking is heavily internet-dependent (for instance, I use lists with Alibris and Amazon as well as the public library system to keep track of books I want), I'm a little bit at cross-purposes with it
  • A wire notebook with pockets for on the spot note-taking and weekly to-do task pools from which I pull daily short lists of one must do's and three should do's (a variation of this thorough, helpful system)
  • A large whiteboard at work (which I salvaged from a conference-room renovation) for mind-mapping and free associations—if it's stuff I don't want others to see (because colleagues are waiting outside my office to get a peek at my whiteboard …)

I'm pretty happy with the above, for now, though I need to spend more time with Airtable and still have to schedule regular reviews of my Evernotes to make sure it doesn't become just another file cabinet of content.

What I'm reading/listening to now

I listed a lot of recent reads and listens last week, so these are just what I'm working through right now:

  • The Silo Effect: Ordered Chaos, the Peril of Expertise and the Power of Breaking down Barriers, by Gillian Tett. Not surprising content but useful to help interrogate your own addictions to your sense of professional expertise.
  • I'm still reading The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge
  • I'm still listening to Douglas Rushkoff's Team Human, Kara Swisher's Recode Decode, the Center for Documentary Studies's Scene on Radio (specifically their "Seeing White" series from 2017), Harvard Business Review's HBR IdeaCast, and I just started Radiolab's new series "G" on the (mis)uses of measures of general intelligence.
  • After I canceled my NYT subscription last year, I started paying for writing and reporting sources which I read a lot, including The Guardian, Medium, Boston Review, Quartz (especially Quartz at Work), Work Futures, and Wired. I also enjoy the regular newsletter from Corporate Rebels.

And in case you didn't get to this post through my newsletter or social media, here is the cover image:

Image by Maklay62 from Pixabay [Description: the number zero composed of many types of gears]

Thank you for reading!

I work on a bit of everything in museum content. I find human solutions to tech problems. I geek out on workflow. No, really. I learn and teach and write everything down.