The False Utopia of Inbox Zero

the false utopia of inbox zero

When I first started getting acquainted with the world of articles, discussions, and think pieces about email, I was immediately struck by two things:

1. Wow! There is a world of articles, discussions, and think pieces about email.

2. Some people are really obsessed with reaching “Inbox Zero.”

The first one should not have been that surprising—after all, email is a tool that literally billions of us use, often many times a day. It makes sense that there are a lot of people out there who care about it deeply.

But the second one still surprises me. Why would I care about getting my inbox down to zero messages? Who am I doing that for? Do I get some kind of award from gmail? Free googlebucks? A chance to design the Google logo for the day? More pointless invitations to join somebody’s circle in Google Plus?

In fairness, let me point out that the guy who apparently came up with Inbox Zero, productivity expert Merlin Mann (which, minus that second “n”, would be an awesome name for a magical superhero: “Look, up in the sky! With a beard! And a staff! And really helpful productivity tips! It’s Merlin-Man!”), didn’t mean for it to be taken literally as maintaining zero messages in your inbox at all times.

But it seems like for a lot of people, this is exactly what it means, and there are a ton of articles all over the Internet about how to best reach this mystical Shangri-La of email nothingness. However, they all revolve around a premise that I think is fundamentally flawed, which I will hereby try to display with an analogy. Here goes:

Imagine that you go into a storage room to find a pen you are looking for. The storage room is a disaster—it seems like nobody’s cleaned it in years, there is a bunch of random boxes from a bunch of random people, you don’t even know what’s in half the boxes because you’ve never opened them and the labels are unclear and it seems like somebody keeps loading in new boxes every time you close the door—but you still have no trouble finding the pen.

Now, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure time:

If, even though you now have the pen, you decide you must stay in the room, open every box, go through every item, and clear the room out entirely, all before you can use the pen, please turn to page “Why in the name of all that is holy are you doing this?”

If you pick up the pen and leave the storage room, please turn to page “Well, obviously.”

I vote for the second option. You’ve got what you need, and the storage room is incredibly big and easily searchable. Why waste your time cleaning out the entire storage room?

Timyo votes for the second option, too. Timyo lets you see all of your prioritized email quickly and easily. Your total inbox is there whenever you care to see it or search it, but you don’t have to clean out the damned thing just to see the emails you care about.

Let’s look at an example: you open up your email in Timyo and see one email that you definitely need to get today and another 20 that may well be completely useless crap. With Timyo, you can just swipe over the one email that definitely matters, hit “Today”, and boom, it’s copied to your today folder. No need to go through the other 20 emails.

Also, if you were still trying to reach inbox zero, you couldn’t just delete those 20 emails — you’d want to make sure they were completely useless crap, so you’d have to open them and read each one to make sure, or else carefully file them away in individual folders (Travel, the Petersen Account, Coworkers Whom I Despise, etc.), all because you want that feeling of a “clean” inbox.

In a recent survey, Mobile Nations found that most people only consider 30-40% of the email they receive to be important. Carefully sorting and cleaning out an entire inbox just to get to those 30-40% isn’t just time-consuming, it’s brain-consuming.

With Timyo, you can just leave those unimportant emails right there, secure in the knowledge that you’ve already plucked the good emails from inbox obscurity and put them in your “Today” or “Later” folders, readily available to be dealt with whenever it makes the most sense for you.

I’ll close with the old quote that always gets attributed to Albert Einstein (which means he probably didn’t say it) that my 10th grade English teacher had on a plaque on her desk:

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, what is an empty desk a sign of?”

I like the joke, but I think it’s a little harsh —

I just think it’s a sign that the empty desk’s poor owner spent way too much time, for no good reason, trying to get to “Desk Zero”.

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