Why “Inbox Zero” is a scam

May 31, 2022

7 mins

Why “Inbox Zero” is a scam
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

Productivity junkies love to set Inbox Zero as their work goal. It consists of, as the method’s name suggests, working to keep your inbox empty at all times. Tearing through emails to try to get rid of the “unread” ones can keep you busy for hours, sometimes making you feel important and efficient. For some people, half (or more) of their time is spent working on this. But isn’t this just a mirage of productivity?

An inbox is an endless cycle of work: as soon as it’s empty, it gets filled up again. In some ways, the inbox is a perfect metaphor for the life of a worker. Greek mythology illustrated this well with the punishment inflicted on Sisyphus by the gods for his hubris: he was condemned to push a stone to the top of a mountain, where it inevitably ended up falling back down. The faster he pushes the stone up the mountain, the faster it falls back down. With an inbox, it’s the same thing: the faster you empty it, the faster it fills up again.

From an existential point of view, Sisyphus (and your inbox) could be seen negatively as a metaphor for the absurdity of life, or positively, as an illustration of the perpetual movement of nature (the seasons, the cycles, eternal renewal). For Albert Camus, Sisyphus is actually a fighter who chooses not to give in to despair by continuing to roll his rock up the mountain, in spite of everything. This is why, writes Camus, that one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” In light of this, the fighters who believe in their work and never give up on their emails should be saluted. Hats off to them!

The Inbox Zero method, developed by a productivity expert named Merlin Mann, originally aimed to free the mind of the mental load of emails. Zero is the amount of brain time you should spend on your inbox.” For Mann and other productivity gurus, you should therefore get rid of them as quickly as possible. But I’m not sold on his arguments. From a productivity point of view, the Sisyphean attitude towards email is not necessarily the most sensible one — It might even be totally counterproductive. So what if email management methods were really all just a scam?

A lot of time is spent on them, but is it really productive?

The first thing worth noting is that executives and other workers glued to their screens do spend a lot of time dealing with their emails, and more and more so. According to Statista, there has been continuous increase in the number of daily emails: from 281 billion emails a day in 2018, it should hit 376 billion in 2025. In 2022, about 333.2 billion emails will be sent every day, which is more than 3.5 million a second!

Innovations like corporate social networks and collaborative tools aren’t changing things much: more and more are still being sent. Newsletters are more popular. Marketers still love them. Teenagers (my daughter in particular) may find email old-fashioned, but emails are far from being written off as a thing of the past!

Since the beginning of the pandemic, written messaging has become increasingly important in the workplace. Far from disappearing in favor of audio or visual communication, email is enjoying a revival. With remote work, we tend to put more colleagues in copy and to summarize project progress in writing. It’s useful since an inbox is the number one place for archived information. But the result is spending more and more time on it for work (and leisure)! I personally spend more than four hours a day on them: to keep informed and to exchange with my peers. I’m far from being the only one! A 2019 Adobe study revealed that Americans spend an average of almost 6 hours a day checking their emails.

So, if half - or more - of your time working is spent dealing with emails, is it still considered productive time? Of course, many emails are work-related: giving instructions to your teams, providing important information that will help a colleague move forward, scheduling a meeting with a client to make a sale. Some emails are even directly productive: if you’re a manager or an employee in customer support, your productivity depends on the number of emails you manage to handle.

But is this always the case? Sadly, no. An increasing amount of email is used to feed this illusion of productivity that prevents you from accomplishing more valuable tasks. Since you’re busy, you don’t have anything to complain about… but the important things don’t get done. In my own case: the time I spend checking my email is time I’m not writing. The task for me that has the most value is writing (articles, books). But since it’s less mentally demanding to check my email than it is to write articles, I tend to check my email a lot when I should be writing instead. The illusion of productivity harmful because not only does my article not get written, but I also feel like a failure after.

Four reasons why inbox zero is a scam

1. Anxiety makes you sick

I’ll admit that I have an unhealthy relationship with my inbox, and it’s one that causes me constant anxiety. No matter how much time I spend on it, I know I’m going to have to do it all over again. And it’s the inbox that sets the pace. It’s like working on an assembly line at a factory: you have on control over the speed. If you slow down, you might cause trouble for other people. You’ll have to catch up and spend twice as much time to get back in sync. There’s no better example of this in action than in this iconic scene from Modern Times.

I think there’s something else exactly like emails: the basket of dirty laundry. You can choose to “rebel” and stop doing laundry for a few days… but that won’t stop your kids and spouse from filling up the basket (with sometimes perfectly clean items… but I know this article is not the place to complain about my domestic life!). The point is that you still end up with a mountain of laundry that needs to be washed, hung, folded and put away at some point. Of course, there are limits to how much you can compare the two: for laundry, the trick is to share the workload with other members of the household, while the inbox is yours alone to deal with. Unless you have certain A.I. tools or a personal assistant, it’s hard to delegate emails, and only a privileged few have that luxury.

In short, this nonstop flow can make you anxious and The Inbox Zero method follows the logic of a continuous flow rather than setting aside dedicated time for emails.

  • When you force yourself to deal with these emails only at specific times of the day, you protect yourself (a little bit) from this anxiety.
  • It’s important to set your own pace: “I sometimes take 48 hours to answer my emails” you might tell your colleagues… as a manager, you have more influence over the pace.

2. The cognition crisis

E-mails epitomize what some neurologists call the “cognition crisis.” “Our brains simply have not kept pace with the rapid changes in our environment — specifically the introduction and ubiquity of information technology,” writes neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley in a 2018 article published on Medium. Our ‘ancient’ brains are not designed to handle so many emails, he explains.

In his 2019 book Indistractable, Nir Eyal argues that at least 50% of all our emails are useless, purely and simply redundant. For engineer and author Cal Newport, staying constantly connected to email is what’s keeping you from doing deep work, that is to say, the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task: One of the most valuable skills in our economy is becoming increasingly rare. If you master this skill, you’ll achieve extraordinary results,” he writes on his site.

In essence, the Inbox Zero strategy keeps you from focusing and from doing creative work that requires deep focus.

  • Periods of disconnection are necessary to focus and to renew your creative abilities. A few hours a day offline can be enough.
  • There are applications that fight digital distractions (including emails), like SelfControl, Go Serene, Rescue Time, Forest… And you can start by turning off notifications.

3. Speed increases quantity

The more emails you send, the more new ones you’ll get in return. In other words, the more “productive” you are today, the more “productive” you’ll need to be tomorrow. As a result, it’s your own productivity that makes all your email efforts futile!

  • Waiting is a virtue. When an email is left to “marinate” for a few hours (or days), often it no longer needs a response (because, for example, the problem may no longer exist).
  • The most “productive” time is the time you take each week to unsubscribe from annoying emails like company newsletters that you don’t even remember signing up for.
  • Let some emails remain unread: you might be in the habit of sending email reminders for everything important — but do you really need an email for every item on your schedule? Let some reminders be unread, or don’t send them at all.

4. Unpaid time

It’s rare to be thanked or congratulated for managing your inbox well. Let’s face it: emails are really thankless. When not at the core of your professional activity (as in the example of customer support), you often deal with them during your daily “gaps” — on the metro, in the toilet, at lunchtime or on weekends — that’s to say, outside of paid hours.

I’ve noticed over the last few years that I receive more and more messages in the evenings and on weekends, including work-related emails. While some people still know how to safeguard their personal time, others let their work creep into their leisure timeblurring the lines between the private and the professional. This is why the debate on disconnection and the new worker protections are at the heart of what’s at stake in the future of work.

In an age of being constantly connected, the time spent online is no longer necessarily considered by employers as productive time. But being connected keeps you from getting rest and being focused. It’s important to make it count, so that it doesn’t just become an extra thing you do at work.

  • It’s important to keep track of the time you spend on your emails, and limit it. When that time is up, it’s up. (Almost) everything can wait…
  • Together, we’re helping to transform the social norms and cultural rules that shape communication in the digital age. So let’s change all these habits, the ones that demand immediate reactivity and make us slaves to our inbox!

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

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