The thrill of seeing this on my phone is not the only benefit of keeping my inbox clear

I achieved Inbox Zero in June and, miracle of miracles, have kept it up for about four work weeks. Now that I have scraped away the detritus of accumulated posts, I can see more clearly my process for handling (or not handling) them as they come in, and it’s as good as therapy for learning about myself.

I should say, before I continue, that if a full inbox works fine for you, great. My wife just uses her inbox as her to-do list, done list, archive, everything, and manages to take care of what’s important and not be stressed out by the pile. For me, when I try that, everything gets mixed together and I lose track of things: those I need to respond to right now, those I don’t want to respond to, those I don’t want to make a decision about, those I ought to delegate but I haven’t figured out to whom . . . It’s fine for me to have a big, unsorted archive (I use a mail program with an excellent search function for just this reason, though I also create dozens of folders). But using my inbox as an archive is the road to ruin.

Here’s what I’m observing as e-mails enter an empty inbox:

Procrastination is a reflex. I read an e-mail that requires some small action: a reply that will take a little thought, a scheduling decision I have to make. Immediately, there’s a feeling of drag, best described as “I don’t wanna,” and a desire to look at it later. Anything but just dealing with it now.

There is nothing rational about this; in fact, it’s barely a thought process. It’s a reflex. Why do right now what I can put off until tomorrow? Except I’ve promised the people I work with that I will respond within a day (with allowances for vacation), and I’ve promised myself that I will get my inbox down to zero at the end of every work day, so I’m forced to notice myself trying to delay the inevitable. It’s not exactly news to me that I do this, but it’s such an ingrained habit that usually, I hardly notice it in action. But as I’ve written before, I’m trying to train myself into better habits, and slowly, they seem to be replacing the “put-it-off” tendency. Reversing it with incoming e-mails is the next phase.

A little bit of spam is nutritious. I get my share of articles, newsletters, podcast notifications, and posts to e-mail lists, and while most writers on the subject advise unsubscribing from all such sources, I actually find them rather soothing. If I have a little spare time, I’ll read them right then; if they look interesting and I don’t have time, I’ll file them into my rainy-day reading folder; most, I delete outright. Occasionally I notice that I’m deleting everything from a certain list, and I unsubscribe. But scanning ten newly-arrived posts in my inbox and realizing that eight of them can be dispensed with gives me the same kind of satisfaction I get from putting “Water office plants” on my to-do list every week. Watering my plants doesn’t really need to be on the list (it’s not a task I will forget), but it’s a fun little item that’s a three-minute break from my more difficult responsibilities, and I get that dopamine mini-surge from checking it off. Being able to delete several e-mails painlessly: my drug of choice.

I’m learning to trust my system, i.e., myself. My effective system for remembering tasks is to write everything I need to do–whether today, soon, or eventually–in one notebook. Other “systems,” like putting things on my (physical) desktop that I’m going to “get to soon,” only work when there are just a few items. Very few. Three or fewer. When there are ten, the “system” is no longer effective because I can’t see at a glance what I need to do, and when there are a hundred, they’re just another intimidating pile. When e-mails pile up in my inbox, it’s because I’m using it the same way I use the surface of my desk–I’ll just leave this here because I need to get to it soon!–and it doesn’t work any better with e-mail than with paper documents.

Sticking with Inbox Zero nudges me to trust my system. If I can do something right away, great. If not, I write down the related task, along with deadlines, and note any context needed in parentheses:

  • Due Wed.: Check in with Pru about October 20 service (see e-mail)

Then I file, or simply archive, the e-mail. Now I’ll see that I need to check in with Pru by Wednesday, and if I can’t remember the details, I’ll know where to find them. The temptation to leave the e-mail sitting “right there” (which soon means “under a heap of 200 other e-mails”) is fascinating. It’s like a little voice of mistrust, whispering, “Never mind your stupid notebook. Just leave the post here. That’ll work fine,” when 40 years of experience have taught me that it doesn’t. Getting back to zero is a reassertion of trust in myself.

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I already knew that Inbox Zero helped me to do my job better and thus feel more calm, happy, and competent, as well as making my correspondents more calm and happy and making their jobs easier. It turns out it also provides an interesting peephole into my own mind.