The idea of ‘Inbox Zero’ is compelling. The promise goes like this: Just clean out your inbox every day and your productivity will soar. And, to a certain degree, this is true in my opinion. It is a good idea to pursue the goal of an empty inbox. By splitting up your mail into different categories and define ways on how to handle them, you can break up the vast number of mails we face every day. I probably should write about my process at some point. But not today. Today, I’d like to write about the underlying motivation of Inbox Zero: Control.
Inbox Zero makes us feel on top of things.
But that’s only true as long as we can keep up the pace. Because the problem with Inbox Zero is that it never stops. Inbox Zero doesn’t forgive breaks, doesn’t forgive downtime, doesn’t know vacation. So I argue that, in the long run, Inbox Zero tends to achieve the opposite of what we’re aiming for. It becomes an ever-increasing burden to work on everything anew every day.
This becomes especially clear when we apply the principle to areas other than just email, as more than a few probably do. Read Later apps like Instapaper are a particularly fatal case. Who doesn’t know it? You collect article after article in the firm belief that one day you’ll read it all. The day will come when the article collection is empty. But that day never comes. Because you always find more articles that sound exciting than you can read. And so the pile gets bigger and bigger. And with it also the bad conscience. On top of that, that’s just reading. We[^1] have been talking for years now about concepts like the Zettelkasten and why it’s so important not only to consume content, but also to work with it, to write notes. When is that supposed to happen, for crying out loud? Who has that kind of time? In the end, completionism destroys you.
What is a suitable solution?
I think there can only be one sensible solution: Acceptance. That’s hard, especially if you’re the kind of person who is constantly working on their productivity and having fun doing it. But it just doesn’t work. If you receive (a lot of) e-mails, you simply have to live with the fact that something might slip through. And otherwise reduce where possible. I will probably write a separate article about this soon.
When it comes to articles or books that should be read, only a radical change in mindset helps. You simply can’t look at reading lists and Read Later apps as a to-do list anymore, but as a reservoir. A reservoir of never-ending, exciting texts. A bit like streaming providers. It’s not like anyone plans to binge-watch the entirety of Netflix.
I know it’s hard. But it’s the only way if you don’t want to go insane.
I would like to thank Eleanor Konik for the inspiration for this article. She’s wonderful anyway, and I highly recommend her Obsidian Roundup newsletter to anyone interested in Obsidian. And if you also appreciate entertaining info on obscure topics, her second newsletter ‘The Iceberg’ is a great place to go!