The Zero in Inbox Zero


If your e-mail accounts have zero unread messages, have you won? And who, exactly, is the enemy?

Merlin Mann achieved internet-fame through his honest engagement with productivity talk (and he became internet-beloved, at least in certain nerdy quarters, for how he walked away), especially through a series of articles on “Inbox Zero,” a Getting Things Done-inspired approach to processing e-mail. The Inbox Zero articles became a well-known talk at Google, and even turned, for a while, into a book contract.

Now that it seems clear that there will be no book–certainly, at least, no book of tips and tricks about fiddling with your e-mail–even as Mann continues to be active in the world of productivity, someone recently asked him how he now sees “Inbox Zero,” and his answer is worth reading in full. A taste:

Given that every inbox necessarily represents a source of incompletion in our lives, any potential source of new input that we invite (or even permit) into our world presents a never-ending challenge that we may choose to frequently address, but which we must accept we can never even begin to control.

It’s stuff that we don’t know about. Or, it’s stuff we haven’t made a decision about. It’s stuff that we may or may not find useful or interesting. It’s stuff that may or may not be anything we can even do anything about. But, it’s also stuff that, regardless of its theoretical value, can and will constantly distract us from seeing and doing all those things that we already know are empirically valuable.

Mann’s thesis in part is that our anxiety over whether we are doing the right, or enough, work keeps us curiously focused on scanning our various inboxes rather than actually living the life we want, or achieving the goals we set for ourselves. Inbox Zero, then, isn’t a goal to be chased, but rather a perspective on how much attention we should be paying to our inboxes while we’re doing other things. As I say, the whole thing is worth your time.

As the semester starts to wind down–or, at least, the end of it appears to be nearing rapidly–it’s worth thinking about the different kinds of inboxes we’ve allowed into our lives, and matching our rhetorical commitments to our available time, energy, and attention.

If you have an hour or so, the original talk, which does have some super-useful e-mail tricks as well as philosophical approaches to inboxes, holds up remarkably well:

Photo “GTD Implementierung 2″ by Flickr user jkleske / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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