Inbox 1000-Something: free yourself from Inbox Zero forever

I currently manage three email inboxes: the one that all of the addresses associated with roadwarrior stuff eventually ends up in, my personal email account, and the account associated with my day job.

The total number of messages currently sitting in my inbox, between all three, is on the order of 1000. I don’t know the exact number; it’s not important to me.

I stopped actively trying to reach Inbox Zero around three years ago now. I’ve never been more calm and happy about the state of my inbox, AND, I’ve never been better at email.

I wasn’t always this way. There was a time when I was an email processing fiend, maintaining a crisp and perfect goose egg at nearly all times.

I developed a system full of complicated, arcane rites, folders, and tags. I checked email at hourly batched intervals, dutifully adhering to a system of careful folders where I’d pre-process messages before going back to draft extensive responses to the ones that needed responses, read everything that needed to be read, bookmark the articles that were shared, tag the things I’d need to follow up on, tag the follow-ups to the follow-ups, etc, etc.

I had read all of Merlin Mann’s email tips and tricks back from when he coined “Inbox Zero”. I figured out how to do smart folders in gmail, focused diligently on finding the action in each, and learned every single keyboard shortcut.

Then, one day, after being on a client for a few weeks, a client-side coworker asked me why I hadn’t responded to an email she had sent and then followed up on several days later. I searched, I filtered, I dug through the tags and folders. I had never received this email. I showed her, and asked carefully, spelling out each letter, “are you sure you sent it to c-c-o-l-l-i-n-s-@-d-o-m-a-i-n?”

That’s when she told me: a client email address had been assigned to me when I got a login for their technical systems. It’s what (naturally) came up when she typed my name into the “to” field on Outlook. She showed me how to log into it, and lo and behold, there was her email, sitting there next to about 400 others.

I had an entire second email account that I hadn’t checked for almost a month.

Being good at email by being very bad at email

I had to begin repairing the relationships I had been neglecting. I began looking through each one, ready to respond with a heartfelt apology, a carefully considered response, and a detailed explanation of my technical woes.

Almost none of them needed a response.

Virtually every inquiry, FYI, or request for comment had been handled in other ways. Either it resolved without me, was brought to me in person via a meeting or hallway chat, or simply wasn’t relevant to anything important. Given a few days to slip from the top of the stack, most of the them no longer felt urgent or even valuable.

Of the 10-ish responses I actually needed to send, I think seven came back with an “no worries, I figured it out already.”

I had inadvertently learned that by simply ignoring 99% of the requests for my time and attention sitting in my inbox — no response, no follow-up, no filter or folder to return to, just sheer, unadulterated neglect — that they passed into obscurity without a need for response. In the few cases where something did need to happen, my other regular practices of team communication had already picked up the slack for me.

The funny thing is, strategic neglect is actually a part of Merlin’s original Inbox Zero manifesto; a part I strategically neglected when first reading it so many moons ago, because what I wanted when I was trying to develop my Perfect Email Productivity System was a way to be hyper-efficient, instead of a way to ignore a bunch of crap I shouldn’t have been doing at all.

This is the real point here: being Very Good at Email (at least, the way I used to be Very Good at Email) is just highly advanced procrastination.

Most “productivity hacking is” — it’s a way to speed up, structure, and feel better about things that don’t actually move the needle, things that don’t actually make you better at doing the stuff you were hired for.1Hint: it wasn’t checking email. It’s cutting through complex bureaucracy by creating a complex bureaucracy inside your own head, instead of doing the hard work of encouraging change.

More critically, it’s a way to avoid actually having the hard thoughts and conversations about what does make you valuable at your job2If you work long hours at a big, high-power firm and think that you’re adding value by virtue of simply being there and billing that many hours, think again. No profession is safe. You work 60+ hour weeks because you Being Very Busy justifies your cost, not your benefit. It’s very unlikely all of that time is actually moving the needle. by slowly crowding out the actually important stuff, and a way to avoid doing the important-but-difficult work of being honest with yourself.

The original purpose of most of this productivity hacking type stuff was not to make this busywork the thing you obsess over all day every day, it was to get all of that important but boring and distracting stuff in such a state that it can be safely not cared about for as long as possible. A strategy of active email neglect is just a specific example in this larger idea: in many cases,3and almost always, in the case of email  you can just skip the step where you create an arcane filing system and diligently process every little thing, and just go straight from caring to not caring with no ill consequences at all.

Even the fastest email-processor in the world can’t get to Inbox Zero as fast as a person that doesn’t bother even looking at it in the first place — and for the most part, that second strategy is the right answer. Plus, it’s a strategy that is really at the heart of the original Inbox Zero ethos: check less, do less, delete more.

So, that’s what I do now. I ignore my email as much as possible, and it works surprisingly well. Almost nothing bad happens, and it’s saved me (and the people I didn’t respond to!) countless hours of stress and meaningless busywork.4To date, this strategy of aggressive neglect has lost me maybe 3 opportunities, and caused maybe 5 hard conversations, and has given me countless hours of my life back. I like that math.

This is why I have like 1000 emails in my various inboxes — it’s like having zero, without the extra hassle and stress of actually working to keep it there. It forces me to care even less, and to remember that the idea of feeling overwhelmed by the number of emails in my inbox is silly on its face, because having any sort of guilt about un-responded-to email that adds nothing to your or the original sender’s life is absurd.

Plus, there’s nothing like having 1000 emails in the inbox to give one just the right amount of perspective to be able to thoroughly ignore all of the nonsense that we all seem to volunteer our already-busy selves for at 15 emails.

Sometime soon — whenever I feel like it, or have an idle chunk of time in a cab or an airport — I’ll go through and take a quick look at anything that looks like it should have been responded to and I didn’t, then I’ll blaze the fastest trail to Inbox Zero that exists: the “archive all” button.

Becoming bad at email on purpose

I think almost everyone should care less about their email and do less with their email, and can find a way to.

That said, there are a few ancillary reasons this works for me that may make it less useful for you, and a few reasons you think that it may not work for you that are actually bullshit that you’re telling yourself because introspection and changing your habits are both difficult.

I’m going to first address those, and then close with a grab bag of supporting tips that have helped me have 1000 emails in my inbox without having a panic attack.

A few reasons this works for me, specifically

I am naturally sort of lazy and unorganized
I think you’ll find this true of a lot of people who think and write about productivity tricks and tools. Organization and proactive productivity are a cruel necessity to me, not a natural habit. They’re what clear my plate to let me focus my time and attention on difficult, focused tasks. Having one less thing to maybe fuck up or accidentally forget about is delicious and deeply relaxing to my brain, and it just so happens that if you ignore email entirely for most of the day most days, nothing bad really happens.

I have a job description that is not explicitly related to checking and quarterbacking email
I don’t think any job description should require this5Especially when you refuse to conflate the need to check in with people and keep the trains running with the need to send email — email is rarely the most effective way to do that kind of job., and many that do can actually check email less than they might realize. That said, the amount of general non-responsiveness I can get away with is thanks in large part to the fact that most of the email that crosses my inbox is an FYI or a non-critical request for an opinion rather than something directly addressed to me that only I can handle.

I am generally very available
I have many other ways of being reached, which I prefer and check at relevant time intervals: chat apps,6Relevant time interval: every 20 minutes to two hours, depending on if I’ve blocked out the time for deep work. kanban boards and daily standup,7Relevant time interval: every morning and of course, being physically present.8Relevant time interval: as much as possible

I am otherwise highly collaborative and supportive of my teammates
This strategy is not an excuse to ignore your colleagues, shirk responsibility, or to avoid engaging in important-but-difficult things. It’s just a strategy to force those conversations out of your inbox and into more amenable venues where the constant barrage of incoming requests don’t make it impossible to actually think deeply or attentively respond to these needs.9like physical conversations and shared documents

I provide exactly one immediate communication line, and clearly enforce that it is the only way to reach me immediately
Everyone that may reasonably need to reach me on a timeline shorter than the frequency with which I check Slack has my phone number, and knows that they are always welcome to use it in the event that I am actually needed right away.10they can also always come bother me in person when possible People use this ability to lesser and greater degrees —it’s not an accident that I chose something with a sort of high social cost.

Before you ask: I’ve only had a few people abuse this ability, and when it does happen, a default response of a polite “can this wait [insert relevant time scale]?” plus increasingly firm boundary enforcement helps them not make it a habit.

A few rebuttals to common reasons you think it may not work for you

All of my emails are important!
Not everything in your inbox is worth your time and attention just because it’s in your inbox. Really, it’s not. You’re saying that everyone that asks you for something should get it, without further thought. Treating every email as equal-value makes you11hypothetical you, perhaps not you personally a great email checker, but a shitty prioritizer and a worse teammate, because being busy with email is not the same as being productive in ways that move the needle at your job. The point of this strategy of neglect is it forces you to know what the important things are, spend a little bit of time dealing with the facets of those things that come in via email, and ignore the rest.

People expect me to respond to emails faster/more often than once-a-day-ish
This may be true, but why is it true? Normally, it’s because you’ve trained them to expect this with your behavior. It’ll take some time to set new expectations, but often this doesn’t even require active work, just a slow crawl towards being a less responsive email recipient.

My clients will hate me if I don’t respond to them
Not likely — here’s a case study that shows that even folks at elite, high-price strategy firms (in this case, BCG) can check email less often with no detriment to their client relationships, and an increase in their overall ability to get stuff done. Again, this is all about expectation management. If you train people to constantly expect responses to useless email, they will constantly demand them. If you don’t, they won’t.

I will miss Important Business Opportunities
First of all, I’m not recommending you never check your email; I’m recommending moving email to as close to the bottom of your priority list as your personal peccadillos will allow.

Practically, this means having limited time for email, and simply ignoring anything that expands past that time. Try spending no more than 20 minutes once or twice a day looking at what’s come in12set a timer!, and immediately—as in, in that moment—addressing anything that obviously needs addressing, and just leaving the rest for next time. If something really big and important comes in via email, process it into a different to-do list and move on.13This is, incidentally, the core of Kennedy’s Inbox Zero strategy — everything gets processed into Omnifocus, and then, and I quote: “It’s easy to delete my own dumb tasks; much easier than deleting things linked to someone’s name.”

You will still miss some stuff, no doubt, but the amount of stuff you miss will be trivial as compared to the amount of time and energy you save. I happily trade a couple of missed opportunities a year14Obviously I don’t know what I don’t know, but like I said before, I’m pretty sure this number is like, 2-3 per year. It’s not a lot. for more time to be more productive. On the plus side, you will spend less time dealing with trivial bullshit, and you will force yourself to have a better sense of what’s important about your current projects and workload.

Some unnamed horror will occur
This one goes something like “but, but, I can’t just not stay on top of my email!” You probably can. No secret email cabal will get you fired, no shapeless horror will crawl out of your screen when your inbox gets above 20, or 100, or whatever number grinds your day to a halt when you see it. Just ignore it for a day (or if that’s too terrifying, pre-schedule all of your responses to go out first thing the following morning), and see if anyone even notices.

Finally, some tips for maximizing its effectiveness

Be honest, you’re not going to back respond to that or go back and read that article. Now, be fine with that.
Once you’ve come to terms, smash that delete button with abandon.

Don’t use your inbox as a to-do list
Imagine going around to all of your colleagues and asking them “hey what should I be working on today”? That’s literally what using your inbox as a to-do list is. Have your own list, in a different format, and fill it with your actual priorities before worrying about new requests.

Know what’s important
If it’s hard to pick out what the truly important things are in your inbox, that’s a failure of focus, either at the individual or (more often) management level, and the solution is to build a clearer picture of the critically-important versus the tangentially-important versus the unimportant. Trying to move more than a handful of balls forward at once results in no balls ever moving a meaningful distance.

Schedule and time-box your email time
Choose a period that makes sense to you, but if it’s more than twice a day, you’re doing it wrong. In the critical periods where I need to be the most responsive, I go for two 15-minute blocks, with one in the mid-morning (basically one once I’ve finished my most important morning work) and one and towards the end of the day. Anything that can’t be handled in that time simply does not get done. Sorry boutcha. The best (and ultimately, the only important) prioritization tool in the world is hours in the day. Choose how many of those hours are for email ahead of time, and stick to that.

Caveat: this time does not necessarily include writing big things that will eventually go out in an email15To quote my friend Ted, a thousand-word email is a type of violence. If you ever think you need to send a more-than-100 word email, you don’t. Anything longer than that should be an in-person conversation, some sort of Request for Comment, or a separate document in whatever your preferred work/documentation tracking (“ticketing”) system is. or dealing with things that are really large that just happen have come in via email (like reviewing a document) — those I move to a different venue and a real to-do list as soon as is reasonable.

Write the email you want to receive
The best way to train your colleagues is by example. Most directly, this means don’t write non-critical email, or much email at all.

When you do have to write something, make it short, make it clear what you expect from the recipients (if anything) and, make it obvious how urgent that action needs to occur. It’s such a delightful breath of fresh air to get a concise, well-structured email with an obvious house style that people naturally begin to ape it, all without ever having a soul-crushing “email standards” meeting. For more on writing good email, I’ll defer to Merlin.16Please note that this article is THIRTEEN YEARS OLD and feels like it could have been written on Monday. Even with the rise of SaaS kanban boards and Slack and ubiquitous access, our bad business communication habits have not changed much. They may have even gotten worse.

The more email you have in your inbox, the less guilty you have deleting shit en-masse
This is just a dumb mental trick, but it works, and it’s the real reason why I don’t clear out my inbox very much, even though I could abide by most of these principles and still end each day at inbox zero. Having 100 emails in your inbox is overwhelming and terrible, because you could reasonably do something with all of them. At 2000, the only reasonable course of action is to mass-select and then smash that delete button.17When I do a periodic clear-out, I generally take a first pass where I select down the list (x, then down arrow in Gmail) everything that I’m going to definitely archive (e), then of whatever remains, I take 30-60 minutes (I tend to do this during flight delays, so this is determined by when they call boarding) to respond to and read as much as I can from the backlog. Then I archive everything and get on the plane.

Close all email tabs and programs, turn off all push notifications, counters, and other red dots
Do not live in your inbox. If it’s open, or tells you when it’s got something new in it, you’ll check it, and want to immediately do something about that. Fight the urge by making all email checking a deliberate, opt-in action.

Filter as much as you can, and then never look at that shit
I have large buckets of emails that I might want to see occasionally—threads from open source projects I follow, automated notifications from different services, email lists, etc. I filter these into folders that skip the inbox, and then I never do anything with them. Generally speaking, as long as I know it’s somewhere in case I want to someday peruse it, my desire to actually see it or actively process it goes down significantly.

Always pull from the top of the stack
Working backwards from the end of the inbox is a fast path to email overwhelm. When you check email, work from the top, every time, and if you find yourself regularly not getting to the bottom, either respond to less of it, or else figure out strategies to get less —or simply see less of—your email.

Interestingly, when I started to always pull from the top of the stack, I became much more attentive and faster at responding to the important medium-sized things than I was when I had any sort of concept of being “behind” on responses — I now respond to almost everything either within 24 hours or not at all.

Value your colleagues’ time by valuing your own
Don’t perpetuate the cycle. Simply ignoring the timewastery is a kindness to everyone, because if you do not, there is a deep bench of colleagues that don’t want to be doing the hard things either, and will happily bog themselves down in administrivia forever. Don’t let them by not letting yourself. It lets everyone focus on more important things.

And if you still want to get to zero, that’s fine, as long as you triage with honesty
The point of this whole strategy of neglect is that the overwhelming crush of email becomes a feature, not a bug in the system. Everything that is not obviously something that needs attention ASAP becomes so much surface noise as you train yourself to quickly pluck out the actually important actions and move on with your day.

I like John Gruber’s way of describing this:18this article was originally brought to my attention by—no surprise—Merlin Mann on 43 folders

I can classify all incoming personal email into three broad categories: (a) messages that are either very important or very interesting; (b) messages that are utterly non-interesting; and (c) those which fall somewhere in-between.

The vast majority of my email falls into the last category. Under my previous “system”, I let them pile up in my inboxes, under the assumption that some day I’d get around to answering many of them. Under the new system, if I don’t respond immediately after reading them, they go right into my archive. Out of sight, out of mind.

I don’t bother archiving things when I’m done plucking out my A list, because it makes my reference frame for classification worse — more things that should be B’s become A’s, and I worry more about each A, instead of just keeping the ball rolling with a concise response or action.

I need the crush of hundreds of unread emails behind it to remind me that I will get plenty more soon, and getting to zero gets me no secret gmail minigame, no gold star, and does not make me better at my job.

You may not. If that’s the case, feel free to select-all-and-archive at the end of every email checking session. But that’s the only option: everything you didn’t just do something with goes directly in the trash. No middle ground, no saving for later. In or out.

Inbox Zero is dead. Long live Inbox Zero.

Curiously enough, a lot of these above tips are modifications of things from the original 43 folders series on Inbox Zero. That’s the nature of a meme, I guess. You don’t get to choose what it becomes.

Lest we forget, the original Inbox Zero tip posted on 43folders was a suggestion to take your entire inbox and put it in a new folder, where you could process (or more likely, ignore) it at your leisure. Boom, zero. But, that original Inbox Zero of doing big, drastic things that let you spend less time ‘behind on email’ and more time actually doing interesting work got lost in the Lifehacker world of productivity fetishization.

As a result, many of us (including past me) spend more time on maintaining that goose egg than is actually necessary or useful to the real end goal of any sort of ‘productivity trick’ regarding email: communicating effectively and spending less time and mental energy on email, and more time on interesting, impactful work.

The solution? Care less. Do less. Delete more. Choose to be free from your inbox, however many messages it contains.

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