Stop The Insane Quest for Inbox Zero

Is Inbox Zero really possible or even desirable?

Illustration of email going into the trash

 Lifewire / Hugo Lin

Normally, when someone writes about Inbox Zero, it’s from the perspective of experience and success. I come to you from the other side, the one of utter inbox disaster.

My personal Gmail account has over 43,000 unread emails and I have no idea how many left-to-grow-moldy-whiskers opened ones.

This is an improvement from 24 hours ago when I took the time to empty both the trash bin (imagine a trash bin emptied this infrequently in your home and then call a hazmat crew) and my voluminous spam folder. I did spend a few moments scanning the latter, just in case there was anything important in there, but by the 33rd porn invite, I realized it was all garbage and pulled the trigger.

I only took these two actions because Google recently informed me — via email, naturally — that I was almost out of Gmail storage space and told me to do something about it or buy more storage before my fresh mail stopped arriving altogether. I don’t know why I assumed that the 15-year-old free service was, like, totally free for all time. That was a mistake on my part.

I did come by my monster inbox the old-fashioned way. I’ve been using Gmail (and the same Gmail account) for 15 years and was even described by Gmail in its welcome message to me as “one of the very first people to use Gmail.”

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I feel your pain,” you’re not alone. A 2018 Adobe survey found that 45 percent of people are not achieving inbox zero. As for the, to me, astounding 55 percent that said they do achieve it, I assume 25 percent of them are lying.

Are you reaching inbox zero
 Lifewire / Data Source, Adobe

That Empty Feeling

I know this because, according to another 2018 survey by Rescuetime, 70 percent of people keep their email inbox open all day but only 20 percent have a plan for managing all that mail. This is how UnZero Inboxes are born, folks.

People do have strong feelings about the pristine void of an empty message box. According to the Adobe survey, 27 percent describe the concept as “Amazing,” like they’re spotting some rare egret alighting on the spire of the Empire State Building. An equal number, though, deride the concept as “Borderline OCD.” Like, who could be so compulsive as to micromanage their overstuffed inbox almost out of existence? 24 percent throw up their hands in despair and call Inbox Zero “Impossible.” My favorite, though, are the 39 percent who say it’s “Relieving,” when, I bet, they have no first-hand experience with Inbox Zero.

Reactions to Inbox Zero
 Lifewire / Data Source Adobe

I Have My Reasons

Why isn’t my Inbox empty? There are many good — I swear, these are good —reasons why. Let me know how many align with your excuses… er… reasons.

Email Is Dying

I have read many reports that say email as a form of communication between humans is passé. If that’s the case, why spend hours each day cleaning it up? But this “dying” thing is probably overstating the case a bit. First of all, I get dozens of new emails in my personal account every single day (not counting spam). Some are pitches from companies. Many are newsletters and store promotions (thank you, online shopping) and a handful are personal missives written to me by other humans I know. Businesses certainly aren’t giving up on email. A 2016 survey from Rebixit put email as a preferred channel for reaching customers at almost 25 precent (SMS, though, was a whopping 49 percent).

How companies like to reach customers
 Rexit Consulting

It’s Your Primary Communication System

I do most of my direct communication with coworkers via Slack, but aside from that, email is still a crucial communication platform. Though, if I’m being honest here — and I should be, right? Why lie to you? — texting far outstrips email (and phone calls) as my most important communication platform. For the record, I do not manage texts any better than I do email. Thank goodness Apple is about to improve iMessage search in iOS 13.

Memories

I do have important, emotional, and very personal email messages (a handful from my dead relatives) that I don’t want to print out and refuse to delete. I know, I’m doing this wrong.

You Use It to Manage Contacts

I meet new people IRL (in real life) and online all the time, but I almost never manage to add them to my contacts. It takes a real effort for me to do so even on my iPhone (the process is a little convoluted, isn’t it?). Instead, I like to use a combination of divination and voodoo to find people in email I think I know, do know, or have met multiple times but failed to memorize their names. I remember, say, the company they work for, or the topic they pitched, or some snippet of the brief discussion I had with them. Then I search Gmail for that one thing and usually find the email from them and then hover over the name to launch a brand-new email window. Throughout this process, I never commit their name or email address to memory. I am that kind of guy.

There’s No Easy Way to Do It

I have fantasies of selecting all the emails in my inbox, hitting delete, and then walking away. I will never do that for all the reasons I've listed above. In my defense, deleting only the garbage is not easy. There are methods, many of them having to do with identifying classes of email and deleting just them. Every once in a while, I search on all messages from a particular newsletter sender and when I have a list of just those, I do delete all of them. I should do this a lot more often. I could also set up filters using Gmail’s Labels feature (they're folders, sort of) and have any emails assigned to those labels auto delete after a certain amount of time. If you’re like me and you read that as “This is a lot of work,” you know why I have yet to do this.

You Live in Fear of Permanently Deleting Something Important

It’s not just personal emails I worry about losing. I have inadvertently deleted new emails and then gone scrambling to retrieve them. Mass deletion guarantees I will delete something and later regret it. Trying to find discarded emails is like digging through garbage dump – not pleasant.

You Vehemently Disagree With the Very Idea of Deleting Anything Digital

We have unlimited space, right?

If you can store 2 terabytes of data in the space of a credit card, you should have enough room for billions of emails. Look at it this way. When we were taking analog photos, no one told us to throw 15% out because we were running out of room in our attic. Why are we being asked to clear space on a digital drive that takes far less space than an attic to store all the digital memories of 10,000 people?

You are overwhelmed, therefore, human

I have a lot on my plate and when I look at the size of my email inbox, I think, “impossible,” and then forget about it and start feeling better again.

There is no magic wand for achieving Inbox Zero, but if it makes you feel any better, we’re all in it (and in our inbox) together.