Better Than “Inbox Zero”

Cleaning your inbox (or, as people refer to it: “Inbox Zero”) can give you a sense of control. Unfortunately, this method doesn’t address the core of the problem, and when applied naively, it can even intensify it

A better solution to managing the constant flood of emails requires reframing the problem as an organizational problem instead of a personal one. True, we cannot affect everyone sending us emails, but in an organizational context, we can do much more than just repeatedly clean our own inboxes. 

Let’s start with the most basic (yet hardest) thing: communication requires time. If you have an email you need (or want) to respond to, you should better invest in reading it carefully and thinking about how you wish to reply. Even if you immediately think you have a good response, taking the time to process, organize, and phrase it will make your reply more effective. If your response is ineffective, it will cause another cycle of emails, and the thread will just become unnecessarily prolonged. 

In contrast to the Inbox Zero method, which assumes we can reply to many of our emails practically on the fly, I argue we need time to process any email we care to respond to. 

Next, there are all these emails you don’t want to respond to. These can be divided into two groups: important information that doesn’t call for a response and information you don’t really care about. 

When you get an email with important information, you’d better invest more than a few seconds in processing it. If it is important for you, you need to understand and derive some action from it. When done “on the fly” as part of the inbox cleaning approach, you are less likely to fully understand the implications of what you’ve read. 

If the email is irrelevant to you, it is an opportunity to improve organizational communication. Someone mistakenly thought you should be on this email. Maybe they added other people who also don’t understand why they were so lucky to be included in the distribution list. Approaching the sender and guiding them on who should really be in the loop might take you a few extra minutes, but it is a step toward preventing numerous future emails. It is a way to make your organization more effective and your future inbox a bit less cluttered. 

Of course, there’s always a chance you misunderstood the sender’s intention. Maybe they really do expect your answer. In this case, it is also more effective to approach them than simply discard the email, leaving them without the answer they expected to get. 

The essence of this workflow is simple: don’t focus on optimizing your inbox — focus on optimizing the communication flow. 

Will this approach take you more time than “Inbox Zero?” For sure. But it is an investment. With time, your inbox will be more focused on the important stuff, and how you and your colleagues communicate will help you promote your shared goals. This is why we communicate in the first place.

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