Why You Shouldn’t Aspire to Reach ‘Inbox Zero’

I’m one of those people who loves a ‘hard end’, a nicely tied up completion to a task. I attribute this mostly to my need to be a definitive collector, if I start a collection I have to complete it. I adore order, finalization, finishing what I’ve started. When I see people’s email inbox and staggering numbers in parentheses such as (1092) it makes me irritable. How can people be content with so many unprocessed emails? What gem of knowledge are they missing out on in that mountain of shit? What if a Nigerian prince needs help and is willing to generously reward them for their troubles? Well, I’ve traditionally ensured that I check my emails continuously throughout the day; when I wake up I action the few emails I’ve received from remote teams in different time zones, even if this interrupts my morning routine, I intricately assess automatic reports even if they aren’t directly related to my work area and I file or delete these emails to clear my inbox. When at work I leave Outlook open and respond immediately, I’ve become aware that this distracts from the task I’m working on at that time but again it allows for the blissful desert of a clear inbox. When I’m on lunch, or relaxing playing a game of table tennis or pool, I get comments about my incessant looking at my watch as emails get pushed through and I read a brief summary, then after my drive home when I’m sitting at the dinner table, or laying in bed reading a book, I’m always available to chase up any queries that come through.

Until recently I considered this an asset in my toolbox, always contactable, always available to complete a task no matter how small, and always aware of any issues affecting the company I work for. However, I’ve realized that as my responsibility increases, so does the correspondence that I receive, and this omnipresence has started to become a hinderance. Rather than being invested and involved in the task at hand, my mind is always being dragged into another domain and my concentration on what are arguably more important tasks is being diminished.

So, I’m breaking the habit of a lifetime and two weeks in, I’m really seeing a difference. Email push notifications and badges have been turned off on my iPhone and my watch, I still check my inbox in the morning but I’ve filtered reports into a file that I don’t look at until I get to work. At lunch my phone goes on to airplane mode, if I can’t reserve 30 minutes a a day to relax then there’s no point in having a break at all. When I’ve been getting home, again I’ve been fencing that off as my personal time and have given directions to contact my phone in case of a real emergency.

And how has this affected my productivity at work? It really hasn’t, those reports still get looked at when I have five minutes, and if they’re unread by the end of the day then they weren’t that important anyway and they go into digital purgatory (the deleted folder), I still manage to complete my day job to a high level by periodically checking my emails, once when I get to work, once after lunch and once half an hour before I leave. The difference I’ve noticed is how it’s affected the quality of my daily tasks. I’m now able to start, and then finish a task in one sitting, no more confusion when I’ve been halfway through drawing a diagram and come back to it an hour later. My home life has improved, especially my reading time in the evening, spending time with my children and although I still manage to over cook dinner occasionally, I can’t blame it on work.

We live and work in a 24/7 culture, and with advances in technology it’s easy to ‘always be available’ but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not always the best thing to do, no one is going to commend you for responding to emails when you’re on a family holiday to Cancun, or feel that you did a great job sending an email at 10pm just for it to sit in their inbox (with all the unread clutter) for 11 hours. In fact it was a very unproductive way to approach a very small part of my work life, and I truly endorse anyone else who is a serial emailer to re-evaluate their ‘need’ to devote so much time to what is generally a very passive task.