Inbox Zero seems like an increasingly irrelevant term

Terrie Schweitzer
Nov 16, 2015 · 4 min read
Hercules, getting thing done.

At the turn of the century, David Allen published Getting Things Done (GTD). It took off a couple of years later, fueled by a wide-ranging conversation on the web, more or less curated first by Merlin Mann via 43Folders, Danny O’Brien with his Life Hacks talks, and Gina Trapani with LifeHacker. Online discussions, blogs, and wikis helped a lot of us with the practical applications of GTD and other systems, helping us find tools that worked. And sometimes, at least with 43Folders, helping us not take ourselves too seriously.

GTD promised us “Mind Like Water” with a workflow system that included “Inbox Zero”—a process for managing your incoming information and requests by touching them once and managing the resulting “next actions” on a separate list. On good days, I use Inbox Zero to clear my work email and try to get on top of what I need to do. I also try to set priorities for my day, another facet of the GTD philosophy.

And Allen’s GTD is just that: it’s a philosophical approach for organizing and doing your work.

This year, Allen published a new edition of Getting Things Done which goes even further in agnosticism towards which tools you use to implement the principles, with almost no mention or recommendations of specific tools to use. That’s is fine, but I need a practical approach, too.

I was away, riding tro-tros in Ghana for a couple of years and barely using the internet. I’ve been back for a couple of years now, and I’ve been frustrated with my ability to apply GTD tenets to my own work. Inbox Zero….WHICH inbox are you talking about? That’s the pivot point where my routines and tools fail me now. And I’m not seeing the rise of anything like the 43Folders community to help us make practical sense of this.

I can use Inbox Zero processing for my email…but email is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve got two Slack rooms for work, two for personal stuff. Some work is assigned via Trello. Github…I’m supposed to be doing something with these Github notifications? Reading them?


Social media channels needing reviews and responses. Three other inboxes of support messages. Text messages on my phone—urgent, right? Or not? There’s even my chat inbox in

We cut off the head of email but it sprouted a hydra known as The Notification popping up on every damned device.

Gmail is my tool of preference for email, but even its helpful categorization makes it unclear to me what my process should be. Do I need to clear “Updates”, “Social”, “Promotions” also? I send a ton of mail straight into my archive, unread, to have later for reference. But I’m missing signal by doing that, and feel like I should be doing something different.

Should I turn email notifications on for everything (at least everything of potential value—what?) and shove everything into one Gmail inbox, and process it in the usual GTD fashion? Ugh.

Then there’s Slack. I love Slack. But what about the bits and blobs of information—and to-dos—it generates? I can send direct messages or @ messages into an email notification I suppose. Maybe into Todoist (which I’m loving, btw), But that doesn’t really help me with Slack. I need some system for reviewing non-urgent channels in Slack the same way I need a better system for reviewing some of the “signal” I get from email messages I’ve been archiving away.

There’s another problem, too, with large Slack teams and direct messages. When do I use a direct message (sprouting more notifications) vs. sending someone an email? There’s something about the ease and immediacy of direct messages in Slack (especially in a team of over 1000 people) that lowers the barrier towards generating “stuff”—people direct message me with requests that they know should go into a different inbox, but they’re impatient and pinging me in Slack probably seems like a good idea to move things along faster. It’s just a little Slack convo, right?

So they send the email to the right inbox to cover the bases, then they ping me on Slack. That generates a notification on my desktop, plus an email notification. If I don’t answer them right away, they might @channel the same request out in a way to get their answer faster. My best productivity hack for this is to ignore those people. They’re rude.

But all of these notifications….why haven’t our productivity systems kept up? Is it because they were irrelevant or broken to begin with? (Honestly, a lot of the people I look to as role models, people who truly get shit done, never bothered with any of it.) LifeHacker has become a consumerist Hints from Heloise. Mann still does the Back to Work podcast that gets the philosophy right.

But, hey, maybe I need to buy some of those cool Redwing pencils. Or one of those new Passion Planners.

Geez. Productivity. So much easier to just play with the paraphernalia of it all, as Zappa might say.

Our tools have evolved to make collaborative work even easier; remote teams are becoming the norm and many of our action items come to us by way of software like Slack and Trello and many others, each with its own inbox, notification systems, and workflows—on multiple devices. They’re cool. I love using those tools.

But I don’t want to spend endless hours using other tools like IFTTT or Zapier to link them together in some workflow that I hack together for myself. Those tools are cool, too, but they’re just another kind of pencil or notebook.

And that’s not what I really need.

Because the days of the single inbox are over.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Terrie Schweitzer

Written by

Editor, Better Humans. Bubbler. Hawk watcher, birder. Permaculture fan. RPCV (Ghana 2011–2013).

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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