The elusive “Inbox = 0”

For the past week I’ve been trying to get my Uni mail inbox down to zero – this is how I know it’s ‘summer’.

It’s been good. Refreshing. 1 week ago I had 697 unread mails, by Saturday night I was down to 78, and reached a new low (high?) of 55 by Sunday. It was amazing actually. As the unread mails decreased in number, I started to feel as though as a weight had been lifted. I felt happy, inspired, carefree. Ideas were popping into my head left, right and centre – GOOD ideas, the kind of ideas that keep me awake at night, getting excited about the year ahead…

Then I logged in this morning and it was up to 102.

Dammit. That’s the thing with email – people reply. Not that I don’t appreciate the replies of course, but it suddenly hit me. Why am I chasing zero? It’s never going to work. It’s not sustainable. I then decided that ‘below 100’ would be a good target. It’s realistic – albeit not as satisfying as a big fat ZERO. Let’s face it, the zero is never going to last more than 10 minutes. I may as well chase rainbows.

So I’ve accepted the fact that a) zero is an unrealistic target, and b) occasionally I will fail to respond to emails, as I read from most recent first, and when they fly in thick and fast I’m unlikely to catch up for quite a while. I’ll try my hardest NOT to miss anything important, but occasionally I will, and I’ll catch up eventually and apologise. Luckily, it seems as though most people are having the same problem so they understand.

I guess the reason I’m writing this now is twofold: 1) When the inbox gets out of control and I start to feel guilty I’ll be able to read this, 2) Just came across this piece in the New York Times and it really struck a chord.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this post to the wonderful @savasavasava as we’ve been swapping inbox tweets for a while now. Here’s what she has to say:

Yeah, on second thoughts, perhaps Sava’s goal is even more realistic/achievable. Wise woman.

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7 thoughts on “The elusive “Inbox = 0”

  1. Hi Helen. The NY Times piece also resonated with me, particularly the bit about ‘synchronous’ v ‘asynchronous’ technology. I must admit to having successfully implemented ‘Inbox 0’ after a campaign that began after reading ‘Lifehacker’, then implementing these tips: http://buridansblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/want-to-end-email-hegemony-follow-these-simple-tips/, and recommending them to others. I have also tried to vigorously move communication from email to the social web, with the dual objectives of efficiency, and to promote collaboration and social learning. I suppose I am saying, “Don’t give up!” You can eliminate email hegemony.

    • Hello! Thanks for your supportive/inspiring reply 🙂 Also, the linked post is very useful (thanks again!) – and yes, resonated with me too…
      I do like the idea of moving everything towards a social platform, but then sometimes find it tricky due to the blurring of personal/professional boundaries. For instance, I like to use Twitter with my students and welcome their DMs most of the time (as it’s much quicker than email), but sometimes do need a bit of headspace. Headspace (time-out) for me often does include Twitter as I use it for both personal and professional communication, but if one of my students DMs me in a panic on a Saturday night then I do want to reply straight away, because I care – but then it’s no longer ‘time out’. Don’t feel like this all the time, in fact it’s not usually a problem (I think i’m just tired – it’s been a tough year…
      What are your social platforms of choice when it comes to replacing emails?

      • Certainly separating official and private spheres is getting spectacularly more difficult. In fact this phenomenon, known as the ‘Avatar Effect’ is the source of almost all social media disasters.

        As a UN staff member it is even harder to separate work and private life as what I do in the latter affects the former. Nevertheless, I too try to create headspace by using enterprise collaborative platforms – IBM Connections and Yammer – and LinkedIn for professional stuff, and Facebook for personal stuff. Twitter and my blog occupy No Man’s Land in between, although they are more geared toward innovation and social learning than personal fluff or things directly related to my current job. To communicate I use Skype, Google Talk, Twitter DM and Facebook Messenger. Thankfully smartphones simultaneously runs all of these platforms, so tracking them isn’t a biff.

        The other thing I have done is adopt the ‘work out loud’ approach, whereby I narrate my work and describe compelling examples of how different approaches have made me more efficient. Demonstrable results are hard to argue against.

  2. Brilliant post H. Since hitting the wall some weeks ago I’ve actually started moving ALL emails more than 2-3 weeks old, read or unread, to a local archive where I can search them if I really need to know something but where they are well hidden from my conscience. I’m thinking of constructing a standard auto-reply that blames undersized inbox email bouncing on everything I was meant to do but didn’t.

    • Thanks Ben! It’s that point where we ‘hit the wall’ (and let’s face it, most of us are exhausted after the past few months) when communications become a real source of stress. I think i’ve felt guilty without realising it – knowing I had all these unread mails, and yet constantly responding/communicating (didn’t even mention the 5000 unread GMails in this post – although most of them are probably notifications from social platforms ;). I do like your idea about the local archive – might have to adopt that one. I’m also wondering about having a monthly ’email day’, as inevitably they do build up – let’s face it, this is the quietest time of year so if it’s still not possible to keep on top of it now… jeez.

  3. @Brianinroma (replying here as gravatar is behaving oddly and seems to think i’m you..!):
    I’ve never used enterprise platforms, such as Connections/Yammer – but have heard good things. I do struggle with the idea of ‘walled gardens’ as I want to work as openly as possible and encourage learners to do so too (that’s presuming that IBM Connections, Yammer and the like are closed platforms?). I like your ‘work out loud’ approach. Do let me know if there are any screencasts available – sounds like a useful resource!

  4. Connections and Yammer can be internal, but there is scope to connect with those outside the organization. I agree with you that working openly is a best practice. The trick is how to reconcile that with internal KM strategy.

    There is still a place for email, but I don’t think it should be the platform that people use to manage all of their relationships. The thing to avoid is having to check messages that add no value.

    More on the ‘working out loud’ here: http://johnstepper.com/2012/05/26/working-out-loud-your-personal-content-strategy/

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