Y’all, pipe down: Inbox Zero is a farce

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I’ve never really understood how bad most people seem to be at email, from “getting to Inbox Zero” to “actually responding to an email with some degree of context to what needs to be done next.” Don’t even get me going on post-meeting action items.

Here’s the basic deal with email, best I can tell:

Email is easy to use, and everyone at a given office/potential partners seem to use it, so it’s become default. It has a lot of issues, though. We think of these issues will be solved by collaboration tools. That may be true, but collaboration tools have their own problems. Voice mail did eventually die out in favor of email, and in all likelihood someday email will die out too.

Until that happens, though, we gotta deal with all the hair-on-fire managers in our office. You know the kind. They run around screeching about Inbox Zero and how slammed they are all the time. Dirty little secret: if you have hours in a day to tell people how busy you are, you are not that busy. Americans especially love them some “busyness” culture, often at the expense of real productivity. How is that even allowed to happen? Because at most offices, the quality of work barely matters — it’s what people can control and say they “own.” That’s what actually matters to most people in a hierarchy.

Can we figure out Inbox Zero, though?

Inbox Zero and Tony Hsieh

He’s the CEO of Zappos. He’s big into transparency, so he shares his email and meeting logs online. Most CEOs would chuck themselves into an industrial fan before doing that, because many of those guys believe the work they are doing is private and sacrosanct — no one can know! That’s all bullshit, and I’m glad Hsieh cuts through it.

Here’s an article on Hsieh and his email habits. Let’s get right into some numbers.

  • He receives about 379 emails per day.
  • He spends 35% of his time answering emails (4 hours/day).
  • Hsieh spends 24% of his time in meetings (3 hours/day).
  • In general, he works 12.5 hours/day.

Let’s start with this: for a CEO of a well-known company, 379 emails a day is actually not that much. Now granted, a CEO doesn’t need to be CC’ed on every email (depends on the company, of course), but I know middle management peons who claim they get 1,200 emails per day. Now of course, that’s largely bluster and BS — and probably 58% of those 1,200 emails are marketing campaigns they signed up for.

Can we learn anything from these Hsieh numbers?

He uses an approach called “Yesterbox,” which Google also uses. You can understand the full concept here, but basically think of it like this. Your Monday inbox isn’t dealt with on Monday; rather, your Monday inbox creates your Tuesday to-do list. Then your Tuesday inbox creates your Wednesday to-do list, etc.

This is smart because the problem a lot of people have with email is that when something flies in/pings/etc., they want to deal with it right at that second. However, doing this takes you away from whatever you were doing. It hampers productivity. This is the “push-pull” nature of email.

With Yesterbox, you have four options for any email:

  • Read enough to realize you don’t need to read this
  • Read it and act right away
  • Act later
  • Open/read later

The first two bullets are preferable. If you do this right, what happens is that at the end of every day, you’re at Inbox Zero. You may have some emails sitting there, but they became action items — they became the next day’s focal points.

Could this work for most people?

I’d argue no. It’s not that it requires some degree of intelligence, but there are two things at play here (probably more).

Psychology of email: Most people in an office want to “fit in” with the culture around them. If everyone is telling everyone else how slammed they are with tasks and email, you just end up saying the same stuff — even if you’re not. You might be at Inbox Zero, but you’d never let anyone actually know that.

Email overwhelms people: I’ve never understood this. It’s just a message. Essentially, it’s read and react. I know people get a lot of email, but it shouldn’t be so complicated as it seems to be for most white-collar workers.

I worked with a kid once at ESPN. He comes back from seven days off. Had about 1,800 emails. He’s going nuts. First funny thing is he runs around the office and tells 12 different people about how many emails he has. (Productive!) Then he starts trying to whittle it down. You know the deal with 1,800 emails when you’ve been off seven days? Most of them are reply-all threads that have long since been resolved. This kid is reading through every single one. It cost him 1.5 days of doing actual work.

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

What matters to most people, though, is a big number (1,800) and a chance to showcase how busy/important you are. Inbox Zero would actually be horrible for these types of people, even though they claim to want it.

Are there Inbox Zero hacks, though?

Of course. Try this one, for example. Or this one. Remember: email is just a bunch of 1s and 0s. It’s just machines. You can beat it. I promise.

Is Inbox Zero a true target to hit in the working world?

IMHO, no. Email isn’t where “real work” gets done. If anything, it’s a giant distraction to real work even potentially getting done. (Meetings and most conference calls are the same way.) If you’re truly chasing Inbox Zero, that means you’re spending a lot of time replying to emails and organizing folders. It feels like maybe there are easier/better ways to spend your time in an effort to legitimately be productive at work. I don’t know a ton of CEOs and how they assign out bonuses, but I doubt the major factor is “this person had Inbox Zero.” You know?

What else would you add on Inbox Zero and its current cultural role?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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