The Case Against the Zero Inbox

mess-mso907_1b_stackofclutter_w609.jpgThere are a couple of arguments floating around out that militate against the idea of a Zero Inbox.

In my last post I gave the example of someone who has the problem of having thousands of unread emails.

The first comes from author Tim Ferriss, who has a practice of checking email only once every 1o days. He has an email autoresponder that lets people know that he has this practice, so they know not to try to reach him through this channel on urgent matters.

This strikes me as a non-solution to the issue of having too much email for most professionals.

For example, there are some places that one could move to here in Jamaica that are unreachable by cell phone, land-line, mail or donkey, but if I moved there tomorrow it wouldn’t stop people from trying to reach me. All that would happen is that they would stop trying.

When I made up my mind to come out of the bush the chances are good that I would have missed a few things… but I would have to set up my life to live with the consequences of my decision, and that, I think, is Tim’s goal.
However, lopping off channels of communication does not stop people from needing to be in contact with me, any more than going deaf would all of a sudden change my work-load. This is why I label Tim’s approach a non-solution to the problem most knowledge workers have. It solves his particular problem, but not many others’.

The underlying principle that he is using is sound, however. Check email on your schedule, not on anyone else’s. That is useful and worth implementing whether email is checked once an hour or once a month.

Another post I read by Scott Rosenberg entitled Empty Thine Inbox argues that the author does fine with his Inbox of 16,000+ messages. At the end of every year, he moves some 20,000 emails into a massive folder and starts all over again from ground zero. He claims that he is not suffering from overload, and that he can easily find whatever he needs, whenever he needs it, so to speak.

He says “At least under Allen’s “GTD®” model, you (along with maybe some relatives or colleagues) control the flow into your own in box of “things to do.” But anyone can stuff anything into your e-mail in box. If you accept (Mark) Hurst’s mission of “getting to zero,” it will keep eating up more of your day no matter how efficient you are. And you’ll be letting other people control your time.”


There seems to be some confusion here between a piece of email and a time demand, to use 2Time language. The author seems to be conflating the two, and saying that the act of removing email from the inbox is the same as “letting other people control your time.”

Hitting the delete key once for each non-spam-filtered email doesn’t seem to me to be a big investment of time.

He continues to say: “The argument for the empty in box depends on the notion that a crowded in box is a psychic burden. But that’s only true if you feel that a crowded in box represents a failure. What if you don’t care — and you still Get your Things Done? What if you believe — as the book “A Perfect Mess” argued earlier this year — that neatness is overrated, and moderate disorganization is a sign of creativity and productivity? Messy is exuberant, and exuberance is beauty…”

I agree that an inbox of 16,000 items can become a psychic burden, but not because of the reason he gives – “that a crowded in box represents a failure.”

While setting aside the rest of the paragraph, I think that he might not be understanding the issue.

This might not be the case for him, but I have noticed that what remains in my inbox is not the stuff that I can easily delete, or even the items that require a short reply before being deleted. Those are easy enough to dispose of.

Instead, emails with the following attributes are the ones that cause me the most trouble:

1) they require some further thought before I decide what to do

2) they have important information that must be stored

3) they must be scheduled into my calendar for a convenient future moment of time

4) they have data that must be added to a list of items

5) they need to be married to some other information before action is possible (this category is especially troublesome!)

It might be the case that Rosenberg doesn’t have email that looks like the list I just made. From my work with knowledge workers, however, I know that the vast majority have a challenge of deciding which practice to employ when faced with email that they cannot make a simple decision about.

Ferriss’ solution is simple: ignore it, and train others to change the way they communicate to fit your habits.

However, most of us get stuck, and fearful that we might put the email in question someplace where it can get lost or forgotten, and we opt for the next best solution, which is to leave it in the Inbox.

At that moment, we realize that we have something that we need to remember, and in the absence of a quality time management system, we try to make a note of it in our memory. Take this simple, invisible action and multiply it by 16,000 times.

This is what causes the psychic burden that Rosenberg refers to, not the emails themselves. In other words, it’s not the sense of failure (there is none that I can see that needs to occur) but it is the “unfinished business” that gets started by us when we read email and don’t have an effective practice to deal with it.

The solution is to develop a set of individual habits that we can use to deal with the “unfinished business” in those emails. The 11 fundamentals of 2Time are one sample set of components with which these habits can be created.