‘Inbox Zero’ Is Lazy, And We Can Do Better

What I’m about to talk about may seem absolutely crazy for many people. It’s something I’ve spent a little time pondering, but decided to give this change a go.

So many people talk about “inbox-zero” – the productivity method of ensuring that you have no unseen emails (or e-mails at all) in your inbox at the end of the day, and file them away once they’re no longer actionable. But I have a problem with this.

Let’s think about your e-mail inbox as if it were your physical letterbox. Now, let’s say you receive ten letters per day. Maybe it’s a letter from a friend, or (more likely) several bills that need to be paid. It’s fantastic if you can get through all of those letters and have nothing left to follow-up at the end of the day.

But what do you do with these letters once you’ve dealt with them? Place them in a box with hundreds (or in the case of e-mails, thousands) of other letters and pretend they don’t exist?

Looking back at e-mails, the ‘inbox zero’ method would most likely have you file these kinds of e-mails into a folder, perhaps never to be accessed again but only kept with the ‘just in-case I need them, they’re here’ mentality.

At the same time, most people have some kind of filing system. Over the last two years I’ve slowly (but completely) moved my entire system of filing to the cloud. This meant going through each and every physical document I had, scanned those to the cloud that are no longer required or actionable and kept them in an online cloud-based location where it made sense to me, available on all of my devices at any time. What I had realised is that I hadn’t considered this process for any digital mail.

In short, my e-mails didn’t “spark joy”. But I found a way to change this.

My problem with ‘inbox zero’ is that, as Marie Kondo would likely support, that moving your e-mail, or your physical documents to a filing cabinet or digital mailbox folder, does not necessarily tidy the space up. I had about 18,000 e-mails organised into pointless folders, whilst looking like they made my e-mails ‘tidy’, felt more like they hindered productivity than enhanced it because many relevant files to these would be in my cloud-based storage. It didn’t make sense to have related files seperate from each other.

I have spent many months slowly going through that massive database of e-mails and exported those that I wanted to keep to PDF, filing them with my formerly physical files, and deleted the e-mail. Many e-mails had a PDF attachment, for example a bill, which would be filed with letters from the same company. I even found many duplicated files.

This is how my e-mails are set up right now with how many e-mails I currently have:

  1. Inbox: 1 e-mail
    • To read as soon as I finish writing this blog post, but at a glance it’ll probably be deleted
  2. “3rd Party” folder: 0 e-mails
    • My primary e-mail address receives e-mails which have been automatically forwarded from my other e-mail addresses, so I know which contacts and services need my current e-mail address updated on their end. Eventually this folder will stop receiving e-mail.
  3. “Follow-Up” folder: 7 e-mails
    • These are actionable items which I need to keep an eye on for now, but once they’re no longer necessary I’ll export them to PDF and file them with their counterparts in the cloud, or delete them.

And that’s it! Eight e-mails.

It takes some time to make these changes, but the rewards are massive. The surprising initial impact is that my e-mail service is much faster, and sparks plenty of joy. Especially after quitting Facebook and Instagram, It’s exciting to receive e-mails again!

It’s important to note that if your work or business e-mails are cluttered, this may not be the best approach. Everything I’ve spoken about has been purely within the context of my personal inbox.

Is this something you’d consider? Feel free to leave a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

You'll only receive email when they publish something new.

More from Shane
All posts