Infinite Inbox > Inbox Zero

I’m reading Mark Hurst’s Bit Literacy,  which can be found in the productivity pr0n section of the nerd bookstore.  It’s a good book, worth reading, and it’s full of clear advice on how to deal with the deluge of ‘bits’ — digital information — in our lives.  But I have one problem with it: email.

He, like others in this genre — David Allen, Merlin Mann, the Four Hour Work Week guy, etc. — is enamored of this mystical idea of “Inbox Zero,” a pure land of bliss where every email is instantly answered and properly dealt with.

For a long time I accepted this as True and the Right Thing and felt bad that I always have thousands of emails in my inbox.

But, you know what?  They’re wrong: Inbox Zero is a pernicious, dangerous idea that creates more suffering than it relieves. It doesn’t conform to reality and it represents an outdated simplistic idea of what email is. My approach — which I suspect is your approach too unless you are either autistic or writing a book about productivity pr0n — is best described as Infinite Inbox.

That is, rather than thinking of my email inbox like a physical mailbox, which needs to be emptied daily, I think of it more like a newswire or some other kind of news feed. It just scrolls along, a never-ending stream of email.  My ‘inbox’  is a window into the stream, not a box that gets filled up emails.

Just in the same way that I don’t bother acting on most items in the AP wire or my Facebook updates page, so too I don’t bother acting on the majority of the email that comes streaming through. If I did, I’d go crazy; I have a family that needs my time, an old house to maintain, beer to drink.

So I do what all normal people do; we fish in the stream of the Infinite Inbox. I’ll read email from my boss and close colleagues or if the subject line seems important, but I don’t sweat emails I don’t read. They’re there anyway to be searched.

I used to maintain elaborate folders of email sorted by project and topic but I eventually noticed that I never looked inside of those folders. The way we find information, on the Internet or in our email, is by searching. If I’m on a conference call and someone refers to a spreadsheet they sent, I search for their name, sort by date and attachment and pull it up.  It takes no time and I didn’t waste any time earlier trying to decide what to do with it. I don’t mark messages with little flags or colors or tags or whatever.  If I’m really worried about it, I’ll print it out and put it on my desk so I don’t forget it.  Gasp!  That’s what people actually do.

There’s all kinds of flaws to this system and we really need smarter email assistants to sort and prioritize our email streams but Infinite Inbox is the way things are, unlike Inbox Zero which is for most of us an impossible and ultimately frustrating ideal.

Sometimes I feel the need to view subsets of my email stream, so I have views for “this week’s mail” and “messages addressed only to me” and other filters. But the idea that I could have, or even want, no messages at all in my inbox seems a little silly to me.

I guess I could drag everything into an archive folder to achieve that, but why bother?  There’s always going to be email piling up and the world continues to revolve on its axis.  When I come back from (unplugged) vacations, I’m always surprised by the twin observations of how much email I have piled up and how little has really happened; now I just spend less time worrying about keeping my inbox at zero and accept that it, like the world, is boundless.