Forget everything you think you know about inbox zero: it’s completely and utterly wrong.
Merlin Mann, the lifestyle “guru” that invented the concept of inbox zero in the early noughties, claims people took his idea far too literally. They advocated treating work emails like a never-ending task to be completed: once an email has been acknowledged it should be immediately archived, never to clutter the inbox again. Advocates of this philosophy even released handy tips on how to achieve this through infinite tags and categories.
But people soon realised this is not just tedious but a massive waste of time. Mann, who admits his own work inbox is embarrassingly cluttered, agrees.
It is impossible to keep on top of even the simplest of email inboxes without driving yourself completely insane. But at the threshold of another decade, he believes there is a second chance to get it right. So rather than trying to tackle ten years of bad email behaviour, read his simple steps to enter an inbox zero existence.
Accept that almost everything in your life is an inbox
The fundamental issue with the inbox zero concept is that the inboxes in your life are broader and more demanding than ever before. In short, your inbox isn’t just your work email – it’s literally anything that puts a demand on your time: your personal inbox, social media, messaging apps, letters, and even phone calls.
“Ask yourself. If I’m spending time and attention to so many different inboxes in so many places at so many times, is it any wonder that I’m very stressed out?” Mann says.
In the mid-2000s, people knew in their hearts that they did not have the time or the attention to deal with it all, he claims. So they allowed messages to accumulate and let it drive them crazy, he explains. “You process your email. You have to delete or defer it. God forbid, you have turn it into a task or put it on a calendar. Six years from now, that pile has gotten taller and taller and everybody’s still carrying around that secret shame.”
But if you you part from the assumption that it is impossible to handle everything – and the majority of information thrown at you is not important – you can focus on what matters to you.
Whatever you do, don’t delete everything
If you’re shuddering at the thought of tackling everything you have left over from the last year (or for some of us, the last decade) and want to press the “delete” button immediately – don’t do it.
Instead, narrow down the most important things in all of your inboxes and focus on that.
It’s hard for people to imagine tackling a mountain of messages, and know what is important and what isn’t important straight away, Mann says. “It would be as for me to say ‘ah you idiot, you look at your email too much, what is wrong with you?’ But some people say ‘if I take longer than 90 seconds to respond to an email, I might lose my job. In this case, okay, you have to check your email.”
But if you aren’t in that situation, and find yourself checking your messages constantly – you will find it can stop you from doing any other work. Mann recommends checking your email at set times every day: when you first walk into the office, at lunch time and before you leave, for example.
Allow yourself time to switch off
Take inspiration from a time before emails and mobile phones and switch off periodically. Whatever you do, don’t check your messages – not even on Twitter.
“People don’t vacation like they used to. But we’ve all had that experience at some point, especially in the pre Wi-Fi, pre smartphone days, of literally being incapable of checking their emails,” Mann explains.
“When you come back, you might say ‘Oh my god, there’s so much of this’. But then you realise, I didn’t even see this email and somehow the world kept spinning. I’m not saying you should do that every day. But I’m saying remember that feeling.”
Don’t be an inbox dick
Do unto other people’s inboxes what you would have done to yours. If you hope that people will stop bombarding you with phone calls, messages and emails – make sure you aren’t guilty of doing the same.
Don’t be afraid to confront people who try to bombard you with information that you don’t consider important, Mann says. But before you do, make sure you aren’t guilty of calling someone straight after sending an email, or becoming angry if they don’t respond to your Twitter message straight away.
“Everybody is overwhelmed. A lot of people are just punting things to the next person and cc’ing and bcc’ing or calling and generating this volume of stuff,” Mann explains. “I think we would all agree it’s insane to act like a Viagra ad or a Bitcoin deposit ad is as important as an email from your boss. But have we really accepted that?”
That’s the real philosophical jumping-off point that goes for any of these inboxes, he says. “We want to blame the system and the teams and the culture, understandably, for how we got here. But we also have to take responsibility for what we do ourselves.”
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