The Real Power of “Inbox Zero”

I recently reached the elusive“inbox zero” in both my personal and work email accounts. I ended my work day with no emails in either inbox. It felt awesome.

I had always realized it as a goal, and made moderate strides toward it. But as with so many destinations we long for, imagining it is one thing, but actually reaching the destination — well that’s a whole other thing entirely.

The Root of Productivity Problems

Ever since I was introduced to the concept of “inbox zero”, by way of the incomparable Merlin Mann, I immediately felt its appeal. I knew that it would help me manage my work and my life better. I felt the appeal, but I hadn’t yet grasped the power of it. It wasn’t until last week — when I actually reached inbox zero — that I came to understand why it is so integral to becoming a productive person. That’s probably because I came to understand a bit more about what lies at the foundation of productivity.

What I’ve come to realize about productivity is this:

Nearly every problem we have in the realm of personal productivity comes as a result of vagueness and clutter.

Yes, Inbox Zero is ostensibly about your email inbox, but that’s just a point of entry. It’s also about your physical inbox, and your mental inbox. It’s about wherever it is in your life where there is stuff. It’s about ensuring that as much of the stuff of your life as possible is clearly defined and not taking up your attention, so you can go about the business of actually doing things.

Why Organization is Important

Sure, organization is good, but it’s good precisely because it serves to define the stuff in your life. An organized person lives without the creeping fear that there is some physical or digital thing somewhere that needs their attention.

That fear is distracting, and because it is distracting, it is destructive. It can destroy your ability to focus — be it focusing on your work, your relationships, or on your health. Being unable to focus on those things will make it exponentially harder to do them properly. That means that a better organized person at least has the opportunity to be more productive, and do better work in general.

The day that I achieved inbox zero, I immediately felt the difference. I was able to engage in more intent listening to others. I arrived at home ready to actually greet my wife and child. I had confidence that I could handle the remains of the day — no matter what might come up. That comes from the organization that a clean inbox affords me. I know that there’s nothing vague and undefined that I have to do. If something urgent and important comes up, I know the nature of any task or project that I have to move around to accommodate the new stuff. That’s a great feeling.

Don’t Fetishize It

But don’t fall into the classic trap of confusing the means and the end. Inbox Zero is not the goal; it’s a way of getting to the goal, which is a relaxed mind. The relaxed mind is the gateway to productivity. Many people overlook this, and end up compulsively checking their inbox every 10 minutes or so.

Becoming obsessed with keeping your inboxes at zero is actually counterproductive because it makes you do 2 counterproductive things: checking your email constantly, but also thinking about your email constantly. But the reason that we’re attracted to inbox zero is precisely because we find ourselves preoccupied by and distracted by our inboxes. So when you get to inbox zero, don’t fetishize it by getting obsessed with cleaning out your inboxes— use it as the tool it is. Otherwise, it becomes just another way to avoid doing work.

I’m not sure how long I’ll maintain Inbox Zero, but the goal is to end each day with an empty inbox for each of my 3 inboxes. Will that happen every night? I can confidently say “no” right now. However, I won’t beat myself up about that, because that’s not really the point.

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