Merlin Mann for President: The Case Against Inbox Zero and Empty Productivity

Merlin Mann for President The Case Against Inbox Zero and Empty Productivity

Last week, our founder Fabrice shared a long, thorough article from Gulf News: “Time management is ruining our lives” . Author Oliver Burkeman sets out nothing less than a longitudinal history of time management, from ancient Greeks to productivity apps and life hacks.

Ladies and gentlemen…Mr. Merlin Mann!

One of the central figures in recent chapters of this story is Merlin Mann, father of “Inbox Zero”—the notion that maintaining an empty inbox is the best way to use email productively.

We’ve talked about Mr. Mann here before, in an article called “The False Utopia of Inbox Zero.” So, context-wise, you can probably tell that I am not a huge fan of the idea. As I wrote there:

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?

His own worst critic

What I didn’t know at the time was that there already existed a way more trenchant critique of Inbox Zero and the productivity culture that it came to symbolize…and it came from Merlin Mann himself.

Per the article:

[Mann’s] career as a productivity guru had begun to stir an inner conflict. “I started making pretty good money from it” — from speaking and consulting — “but I also started to feel terrible,” he told me last year. “This topic of productivity induces the worst kind of procrastination, because it feels like you’re doing work, but I was producing stuff that had the express purpose of saying to people, ‘Look, come and see how to do your work, rather than doing your work!’”

Mann goes on:

“If you’re just using efficiency to jam more and more stuff into your day … well, how would you ever know that that’s working?”

I admire Mr. Mann for walking away from a very lucrative career, putting family, health, and his own personal ethics ahead of fame and fortune. Beyond that, I admire his ability to so clearly frame the pointlessness of productivity for productivity’s sake.

Human problems and human solutions

And, ultimately, Mann offers sharp analysis of the real problem with email:

“E-mail is not a technical problem. It’s a people problem. And you can’t fix people.”

We couldn’t agree more. That’s why Timyo doesn’t try to fix a technical problem. For the record, we don’t try to fix people, either, but we do offer a human solution to a human problem: by helping people quickly share clear expectations with a minimum of effort, we try to make it as easy as possible for people to send—and receive—better email.

At Timyo, we are firm believers that there is more to life than work. When Mann talks about missing out on time with his daughter so that he can write some more crap about productivity, it is a poignant illustration of what happens when our priorities are misaligned.

As I wrote here once before:

[B]y all means, work to be more productive, strive to waste less time, but remember: what you do with that time is what counts, and the next time you catch yourself thinking about “saving time”, remind yourself that that is a dangerous way to waste it.

I hope that Mr. Mann would agree with those words.

I also hope that he never reads them, because he’s too busy playing with his daughter.

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