On Chasing the Right Zero”

[Originally published April 10, 2013.]

Not to be all Merlin Mann” or anything, but, maybe somebody will find this useful.

I was recently asked to talk about how I think about the infamous Inbox Zero these days, and here’s what I said:

In my view, the titular zero’ in Inbox Zero is not about the number of email messages that are sitting in your inbox at a given time. And, contrary to popular opinion, it’s absolutely not about spending hours of your precious day trying to achieve that empty inbox at any cost. That’s just monkeyballs.

Given that every inbox necessarily represents a source of incompletion in our lives, any potential source of new input that we invite (or even permit) into our world presents a never-ending challenge that we may choose to frequently address, but which we must accept we can never even begin to control.

Because, honestly, all of that blobby corpus of unknown, undefined, and incomplete stuff is, at the heart of the matter, what makes anything into an inbox.” It’s all just… stuff.

It’s stuff that we don’t know about. Or, it’s stuff we haven’t made a decision about. It’s stuff that we may or may not find useful or interesting. It’s stuff that may or may not be anything we can even do anything about. But, it’s also stuff that, regardless of its theoretical value, can and will constantly distract us from seeing and doing all those things that we already know are empirically valuable.

Yet, somewhere in the back of our minds, we can feel that gnawing sense that we need to compulsively dive back into our inboxes or risk…well, practically everything.

But, to me, it’s essential to acknowledge and accept that the dreaded prospect of having to make all those unknown hundreds or thousands of little decisions that might eventually get us out of an inbox is ultimately what makes any inbox—email or otherwise—so goddamned difficult and potentially distracting as a force in our lives and work.

For me, the real zero’ in Inbox Zero is more about consciously managing the amount of our attention that we commit (or, far more often, cede) to thinking and worrying about what may or may not be piling up while we’re away doing the real work of our lives. Which is to say: the Real Work that’s not, in this instance, about fiddling with email or drearily suffering the daily fusillade of random requests and information bombs that get lobbed our way.

Put to best use, Inbox Zero is merely a philosophical practice of learning to be parsimonious about which and how many inputs we allow into our lives—and, then, to responsibly but mindfully tend to those inputs in a way that is never allowed to hinder our personal commitment to doing the work that really matters to us.

Once you’ve dedicated yourself to making the things you love, every inbox can and should become a well-monitored servant rather than a merciless master.

Because, at the risk of sounding a little fruity, I believe that a life in which we habitually abandon the known Good Things in order to helplessly stab at “managing”” a nebulous morass of chaoses that we can never control is not much of a life at all.

(Originally published April 10, 2013.)