Have We Misunderstood the Point of “Inbox Zero”?

A less stressful email experience might be possible

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"Inbox zero" is a credo many live by. But what if many of its users have misunderstood what that means?
AIGA/US Department of Transportation
By Tobias Carroll / January 5, 2020 2:38 pm

What comes to mind when you see the phrase “inbox zero”? It might mean the beginning of a torturous process of winnowing through emails and filing, responding or deleting them as necessary. It might be an aspirational goal, something that your inbox (current population: somewhere in the thousands) will likely never achieve. Or it might be a part of your daily routine, something you take pride in maintaining.

But what if we’ve fundamentally misunderstood the point of this term? That’s the premise of a new article by Natasha Bernal at Wired. In it, Bernal cites no less of an authority than Merlin Mann, the man who first popularized the phrase “inbox zero,” who contends that it’s less about your email and more about…everything.

Bernal writes that “your inbox isn’t just your work email — it’s literally anything that puts a demand on your time: your personal inbox, social media, messaging apps, letters, and even phone calls.”

Much of the advice that Bernal and Mann provide is more about etiquette and taking a holistic approach to your inbox (both literal and metaphorical). That includes tips like not barraging others with a deluge of email, and not being too swift to delete emails, as opposed to archiving them.

The other main takeaway from the article? It’s okay to slow down. “Everybody is overwhelmed,” Mann says — and factoring empathy into the equation. It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking response to a philosophy that’s become widespread among many people — and one which might lead to a less stressful tomorrow.

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