A zombie rising from the dead

Inbox Zero: Yea or nay? Also, 7 other things

A while back, a guy named Merlin Mann coined a phrase that has dogged a lot of people ever since: Inbox Zero.

It’s an email management system, Mann says (or said, 15-plus years ago), and the goal is to have no unread or lingering messages. The way to get there, supposedly, is to choose one of five actions for every email you receive: “delete,” “delegate,” “respond,” “defer,” or “do.”

This was all the rage at the time back in the late aughts. The New Yorker called his idea “revolutionary.” Mann planned to write a book.

Only… have you had an email inbox? (I mean, obviously, since you’re reading this email.)

As so often happens, this simple solution to a modern challenge has (for some people anyway) only led to more anxiety. I think it’s because we often confuse things that are simple with things that are easy.

Consider those five potential actions, for example.

  • One of them takes literally zero time or effort: “defer,” which is incongruously placed fourth in the list.

  • Another one, “delete,” takes de minimus effort—unless you are like me, and then have to add the additional time involved in overthinking whether the email you just deleted might actually be important someday.

  • The remaining three actions—“delegate,” “respond,” and “do”—each take an unknowable amount of time.

Simple, but sometimes the exact opposite of easy.

At least for the organizationally challenged, there is also a sixth category: “fail to notice at all, because the email got stuck in spam or promotions, or else you were checking email on your phone with 100 other distractions nearby, and chill out man, you’re only human.”

Writing recently in The Guardian, Sarah Ayoub said she asked Twitter followers whether they strive to reach the goal of Inbox Zero.

Some of the responses reflected passion just shy of, say: “One or two spaces after a period?” or, “Oxford comma, yes or no?”

Or else: “Happy Thanksgiving, ‘distant relative with whom I talk only once a year and whose political beliefs are 100% the opposite of mine!’ Shall we have a few glasses of wine and then debate Biden and Trump?”

Among the replies Ayoub received:

  • An author who likened the notifications from his email inbox to “a Kalashnikov on semi-automatic…”

  • An editor who said she’d given up, and that she always has more than 1,000 unread emails.

  • Another commenter whose gentle, value-free judgment was that the 1,000-unread emails person’s method above made her “throw up a little in my mouth.”

“Email is a zombie that keeps rising from the dead,” a psychologist, Jocelyn Brewer, told her. “Its ‘serve and return’ nature means that you can almost never get ‘on top’ of it, so it can make you feel like you are battling an unwinnable war.”

Now, unlike the United States in Afghanistan for 20 years, I’ve learned a few things in my life, and one of them is that if you find yourself fighting an unwinnable war, it might be a good idea to stop fighting.

I recognize, obviously, that email itself leaves a lot to be desired. I wish it were better. But also: “I wish we could all have good luck, all the time! I wish we had wings! I wish rainwater was beer! But it isn’t!”

(Quoting A Man for All Seasons, ‘cause I’m literary like that. Actually, I’m more than happy that rainwater is not beer; that would be too much.)

Anyway, let’s get to the happy ending, before you begin to get the highly meta feeling that this email itself is cluttering your inbox. It comes from Mann, who apparently, 15 years later, thinks people might have taken Inbox Zero a bit too literally.

If I can interpret, the idea he now espouses is simply not to let the parade of notifications take over your life.

As it happens, that’s also what the psychologist quoted above suggests. Her goal: Inbox Manageable instead of Inbox Zero, which means avoiding having any artificial thing, especially those which are theoretically supposed to make our lives easier like email, take up too much room in your life.

In other words, “To everything (turn, turn, turn) … There is a season (turn, turn, turn) …”

Now, about that Oxford comma.


OK, folks, I just realized the real reason I think I was drawn to write about this, which is that I want to talk about email. The paradox is that I’ve staked a bit on it over the last 18 months—but I don’t really like it as a medium. Yet here we are.

So: Do you have a love-hate relationship with email like I do? Is it so old now that it’s in the background, something that you hardly notice?

And what do you think: Should Understandably be available in other ways? Post the whole thing on Facebook or LinkedIn, as I tried for a while? Let people sign up to get it via text? Post it on a website? (Trick suggestion: It’s already posted every day on a website.) Let me know what you think.

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Thanks for reading, as always. Photo credit: Pixabay; fair use. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.