'Inbox zero' doesn't seem to work for me but it's still tempting

February 9, 2015

Every so often I read another paen to the 'inbox zero' idea and get tempted to try to do it myself. Then I come to my senses, because what I've found over time is that the 'inbox zero' idea simply doesn't work for me because it doesn't match how I use email.

I do maintain 'inbox zero' in one sense; I basically don't allow unread email to exist. If it's in my actual MH inbox, I've either read it, am in the process of reading it, or I've been distracted by something being on fire. But apart from that my inbox becomes one part short term to-do tracker, one part 'I'm going to reply to this sometime soon', and one part 'this is an ongoing issue' (and there's other, less common parts).

What I do try to do is keep the size of my inbox down; at the moment my goal is 'inbox under 100', although I'm a bit short of achieving that (as I write this my inbox has 105 messages). Some messages naturally fall out as I deal with them or their issue resolves itself; other messages start quietly rotting until I go in to delete them or otherwise dump them somewhere else. Usually messages start rotting once they aren't near the top of my inbox, because then they scroll out of visibility. I try to go through my entire inbox every so often to spot such messages.

What it would take to get me to inbox zero is ultimately not a system but discipline. I need most or all of the things that linger in my inbox, so if they're not in my inbox they need to be somewhere else and I need to check and maintain that somewhere else just as I check and maintain my inbox. So far I've simply not been successful at the discipline necessary to do that; when I take a stab at it, I generally backslide under pressure and then the 'other places' that I established this time around start rotting (and I may forget where they are).

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that inbox zero would be useful for me as opposed to make-work. To the extent that I can see things that would improve my ability to deal with email and not have things get lost, 'inbox zero' seems like a clumsy indirect way to achieve them. More useful would be something like status tags so that I could easily tag and see, say, my 'needs a reply' email. You can do such status tagging via separate folders, but that's kind of a hack from one perspective.

(I'd also love to get better searching of my mail. Of course none of this is going to happen while I insist on clinging grimly to my current mail tools. But on the other hand my current tools work pretty well and efficiently for me and I haven't seen anything that's really as attractive and productive as they are.)

(A couple of years ago I wrote about how I use email, which touches on this from a somewhat different angle. This entry I'm writing partly to convince myself that trying for inbox zero or pining over it is foolish, at least right now.)

Sidebar: why the idea of inbox zero is continually tempting

I do lose track of things every so often. I let things linger without replies, I forget things I was planning to do and find them again a month later, and so on. Also I delete a certain amount of things because keeping track of them (whether in my inbox or elsewhere) is just too much of a pain. And I've had my inbox grow out of control in the past (up to thousands of messages, where of course I'm not finding anything any more).

A neat, organized, empty inbox where this doesn't happen is an attractive vision, just like a neat organized and mostly or entirely clear desk is. It just doesn't seem like a realistic one.

Written on 09 February 2015.
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Last modified: Mon Feb 9 02:06:58 2015
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