Common Inbox Misconceptions

January 22, 2024 by Stephen Dolan

I was out in the garden listening to a podcast over the weekend, when one of my favorites, Hackers Incorporated, came on. Ben Orenstein and Adam Wathan were doing a look back at 2023 and reflecting on what went well and what could be improved.

A few specific moments stood out that I’d like to provide my take on.

I should also preface this by saying that I think Ben and Adam are wonderful humans, and each of them have (in a different way) had a profound impact on my life in a positive way.

“Productivity system” != “Trademarked philosophy”

When Ben was talking through his experience with GTD, Adam said:

I don’t have any productivity system, and I don’t consider myself productive.

Most people think that a productivity system means absolutely adherence to a framework like “Getting Things Done”, “Bullet Journaling”, or “The One Thing”, which I think is what Adam is alluding to here.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Everyone has a productivity system. It sounds like Adam’s system (at least, for work) is to think about and write up his weekly priorities each week in Basecamp, then work on those plus whatever else comes in that is fun, distracting, necessary, or energizing.

I’d also nitpick this definition of “productive”, which I think too many people consider to mean “doing a lot of stuff”. Instead, think of productivity as “producing meaningful, significant outcomes”. Adam pushed the state of the art in programming forward, created the world’s most popular CSS framework, all while expanding his personal family and providing employment for a small team of humans; those seem like significant outcomes to me.

If those don’t feel like significant (enough) outcomes to him, that’s what a framework like GTD can help with that a weekly prioritization activity can’t.

Inbox zero doesn’t mean replying to all your email

When Ben and Adam started talking about email, they honed in on the idea of inbox zero:

Adam said:

Instead of chasing inbox zero, just don’t reply to emails. That’s my system!

Ben summarized GTD’s take on inbox zero, though the term “whatever” is doing a lot of work here:

This is part of a GTD precept. You gotta clear the inboxes! You gotta let it build up, you clean them all out until you’re down to zero, and you turn them all into actions and whatever.

Achieving inbox zero isn’t done by responding to all of your emails or finishing everything in your inbox. I honestly couldn’t think of many uses of time that sound less appealing.

Inbox zero is determining what each inbox item means to you and putting it in the right place, and this doesn’t have to happen one-by-one.

When you process mail from your physical mailbox, do you scan each piece of colorful junkmail and open every envelope addressed in an obviously-spammy way? No, you gather them up and throw them out in a matter of seconds and deal with the remaining, potentially-important items.

Do all of your emails mean nothing to you? Each week, you should select all of your emails and hit the Delete key. Inbox processed!

Do only emails from people with your company’s domain name mean something to you? Delete all the external emails and only process the internal ones.

And remember, “process” doesn’t mean “open the email, do the work requested of you, and then reply”. “Process” means to ask yourself the question “What does this mean to me?”, then trash it, categorize it as reference, delegate it, or add it to your to-do list. If it takes literally two minutes to get fully off of your plate/mind, in that case you could opt to do the work.

Inbox zero doesn’t have to happen every day

Adam argued that incoming email shouldn’t rule your day, which I agree with, but used an argument that I think has a wide-spread assumption built in:

You should be able to decide what you’re doing with your time. If you get 600 emails one day, does that mean you have to spend time that day going through all 600 emails? That’s like a DDoS vector for your own time.

You don’t have to clear your inboxes every day. This cadence is very personal, and assuming that you have to clear your inboxes every day is putting you in a mindset that, for most people, is guaranteed to make you feel like you’ve failed at some point.

For Adam, maybe clearing his email inbox is an activity he should do once per month - it should consist of deleting any emails that aren’t from an @tailwindcss.com domain without a second thought, then a quick scan of everything else.

For Ben, maybe clearing should happen every week, but it sounds like roughly the same processing method could be used.

In either case, this longer time between processing doesn’t lead to a linear increase in the amount of time it takes. If you really get 600 emails per day, processing 3,000 emails on a Friday won’t take as long as processing those 600 emails every single day, and you can start to actually build in some rules, filters, and tags that improve the processing time drastically.

The great part about making this determination is that you can also let the people you care about know. What if you told your team “I check my email every Wednesday”? People would know what to expect of you, and if they felt a strong opposition to that approach you’d be able to have an open, honest discussion rather than just not replying to their emails and feeling like you’re failing.

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