Forget everything you think you know about inbox zero: it’s completely and utterly wrong.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
Merlin Mann, the lifestyle “guru” who invented the concept of inbox zero in the early noughts, claims people took his idea far too literally. They advocated treating work emails like a never-ending task to be completed: Once an email has been acknowledged it should be immediately archived, never to clutter the inbox again. Advocates of this philosophy even released handy tips on how to achieve this through infinite tags and categories.
But people soon realized this is not just tedious but a massive waste of time. Mann, who admits his own work inbox is embarrassingly cluttered, agrees.
It is impossible to keep on top of even the simplest of email inboxes without driving yourself completely insane. But at the threshold of another decade, he believes there is a second chance to get it right. So rather than trying to tackle 10 years of bad email behavior, read his simple steps to enter an inbox zero existence.
Accept That Almost Everything in Your Life Is an Inbox
The fundamental issue with the inbox zero concept is that the inboxes in your life are broader and more demanding than ever before. In short, your inbox isn’t just your work email—it’s literally anything that puts a demand on your time: your personal inbox, social media, messaging apps, letters, and even phone calls.
“Ask yourself. If I’m spending time and attention to so many different inboxes in so many places at so many times, is it any wonder that I’m very stressed out?” Mann says.
In the mid 2000s, people knew in their hearts that they did not have the time or the attention to deal with it all, he claims. So they allowed messages to accumulate and let it drive them crazy, he explains. “You process your email. You have to delete or defer it. God forbid, you have turn it into a task or put it on a calendar. Six years from now, that pile has gotten taller and taller and everybody’s still carrying around that secret shame.”
But if you part from the assumption that it is impossible to handle everything—and the majority of information thrown at you is not important—you can focus on what matters to you.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Delete Everything
If you’re shuddering at the thought of tackling everything you have left over from the past year (or for some of us, the past decade) and want to press the delete button immediately—don’t do it.
Instead, narrow down the most important things in all of your inboxes and focus on that.
It’s hard for people to imagine tackling a mountain of messages, and know what is important and what isn’t important straight away, Mann says. “It would be as for me to say, ‘Ah, you idiot, you look at your email too much, what is wrong with you?’ But some people say, ‘If I take longer than 90 seconds to respond to an email, I might lose my job. In this case, OK, you have to check your email.”
But if you aren’t in that situation, and you find yourself checking your messages constantly, you will find it can stop you from doing any other work. Mann recommends checking your email at set times every day: when you first walk into the office, at lunch time and before you leave, for example.
Allow Yourself Time to Switch Off
Take inspiration from a time before emails and mobile phones, and switch off periodically. Whatever you do, don’t check your messages—not even on Twitter.
“People don’t vacation like they used to. But we’ve all had that experience at some point, especially in the pre-Wi-Fi, pre-smartphone days, of literally being incapable of checking their emails,” Mann explains.