Does “Cleaning” Your Inbox Really Help?

Short answer: No!

But let’s start at the beginning. What does “cleaning your inbox” mean, and why do people try doing it once a day?

Once upon a time, there was no email. When people had to communicate with each other, they picked up the phone or wrote a message on actual paper and sent it. Both these options took time; they introduced friction (which, by the way, is great for effective communication, but that’s for another post). More than anything, these means of communication were not scalable, which means you could reasonably expect only a limited amount of interruptions (or things to attend to) a day. 

Then came electronic communication, which promised a frictionless way to communicate. It enabled us to mindlessly send as many messages as we wanted without considering the implications. And the implications, as you can probably guess, are on the receiving end (i.e., all of us). Before long, email created a greater challenge than it was meant to solve. Its most obvious outcome: we wake up to a full inbox that keeps getting fuller throughout the day. 

The magic solution came from a method called “Inbox Zero” by Merlin Mann. The idea is simple: if you are flooded, you’d better get a mop and start cleaning. The problem might have been created by others, but it is your responsibility to clean up the mess in your inbox. 

Of course, the method defines how to do that, too. Here’s the ultra-short version: 

  • Review the emails in your inbox daily.
  • Decide if an email requires a response.
  • If you can respond promptly, do so. If, however, the response requires some thought, defer the email and respond to it later when you have time. 
  • Aim to have zero emails in your inbox.

It sounds reasonable and even effective. From the perspective of the person with 100 emails in his inbox, this method seems like a good way to take back control of the email situation. The problem is that this method, too, has consequences.

First, it might solve the problem in the short term, but it doesn’t change anything fundamentally in the essence of the problem. You can clean up your inbox once or ten times a day, but it starts all over again tomorrow. Nothing in this approach (except for deleting some newsletter subscriptions) mitigates the problem in the long run. In an organizational context, this is a wasted opportunity. Everyone keeps cleaning their inboxes, but nobody does anything to have fewer emails the next day. 

It gets worse, though. Even if that’s not the method’s original intention, it creates a bias toward responding quickly and (I dare say) mindlessly. It pushes you to skim through your emails and decide quickly how long it takes to respond to each. Most people will likely prefer responding promptly as part of the “clean up” instead of deferring the email to a later time. 

So, what is wrong with that? Often, prompt and not well-thought-out responses will create another cycle of questions and misunderstandings. What could have been a short email exchange can quickly turn into an endless thread of back-and-forth exchange of fragments of ideas. Investing some thought before we reply can often prevent that. We might think we know what we wish to say in response to an email, but when doing “Inbox Zero,” we are tempted to answer immediately without considering how to respond. Our response shouldn’t necessarily be longer, but it should be well-processed and structured, and this can take a bit more time than the method pushes for. 

We need a better approach to handling the flood of emails, especially in the workplace. We need to consider the root of the problem and not just mitigate its symptoms. We must consider the consequences of short-term, local solutions and develop a more holistic way to minimize the problem. 

We’ll try to do that tomorrow.

share this page and help us inspire more people to communicate better

Scroll to Top