Inbox Zero: How to Waste Less Time on Email

How to reach inbox zero and waste less time on emails

Who first said “Inbox Zero”?
In a 2007 Google Tech Talk, productivity expert Merlin Mann urged his audience to treat every email with a decision to “delete, delegate, respond, defer, do” and to empty their inboxes every night. “Once you’ve mined the gold out of your email, it’s a dead, skeletal husk and you can throw it away,” he said.

Don’t we need skeletal husks as records?
Mann described this view as “sad”. “There’s no need for you to live in email… That’s not where the action is.”

Isn’t it unproductive to consider every email?
Critics of Inbox Zero argue that committing to clearing all email puts one’s focus on that most Sisyphean of 21st-century time-sucks – email. Even Mann told Slate last year his concept had been “wilfully misperceived”. The problem, he said, is not the bulging inbox but anxiety around it: “You would not put up with a cutlery drawer that sometimes had a wolverine in it so how could you run your life out of something where, literally, anybody can put anything in?”

How do you do it?
Some adherents recommend starting by deleting any message older than a date of their choice and categorising the rest; some abide by folders named “today”, “this week” and “FYI”. The approach has also been interpreted to include “yesterboxing” (answering yesterday’s emails today and today’s tomorrow), auto-replies that broadcast email-free hours, reducing output and templating responses. Or you could do as Kim Kardashian does with too much incoming: “At the end of the day, I delete everything.”

Is Inbox Infinity the exact opposite?
Those who believe in what The Atlantic described in 2019 as “letting email messages wash over you… ignoring most” say it’s liberating to make peace with a bottomless inbox. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki once told The New York Times she’s “never really deleted any email, ever”. Still, followers of both Inbox Zero and Inbox Infinity ultimately share one goal – to honour their priorities and keep their time and focus from being looted by others.

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Tools to help you waste less time on email

The podcast

After colleagues complained about her lack of responsiveness, Bloomberg’s Francesca Levy tracked the rollercoaster of committing to Inbox Zero in Here’s How You Really Get Better at Email on Works for Me (February 2019).

The app

Superhuman is valued at almost US$300 million (about $461 million) and backed by the super-charged venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, an early investor in Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Once armed with the app’s templates, shortcuts and one-on-one introductory video call, “you spend US$30 [about $46] a month for hours back a week,” says founder and CEO Rahul Vohra. There’s a customer waitlist of 285,000 – and rising.

The talk

In July 2019, Wired editor and Kill Reply All author Victoria Turk delivered a TEDxAthens talk called How to Write an Email (No, Really) about “reducing the burden of email”, containing useful tips on how to keep emails shorter, fewer and more considerate.

The article

Zero Dark Inbox (The New Yorker, December 2012) may predate Google Glass but it holds up as a balanced discussion of the yearnings implicit in Inbox Zero.

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