Better Life Lab Podcast

Confronting Inbox Zero

Email can be a source of anxiety. But we can’t let the onslaught of information run our lives.

Blindfolded man sitting at a desk covered in papers.
H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

The following article is a written adaptation of a recent episode of Better Life Lab, the podcast from New America and Slate about the art and science of living a full and healthy life. Find the show via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play.

For me, July 23, 2007, is a date that lives in infamy. That’s when productivity wizard Merlin Mann took the stage at Google and gave an influential tech talk. He called it “Inbox Zero.

“The single practice that I think could really change your life starting today is to process to zero,” he said. “Process to zero every time you check your email. You never check your email without processing. A lot of people get really good at checking email and they don’t always get so good at doing anything about it.”

It’s such an appealing idea, right? But for a while, “Inbox Zero” became an obsession for me, and I never get there. Actually, I got there once. I wrote a story about having 23,768 emails in my inbox that I did get down to zero. But I virtually didn’t do much else for about a week. Then, once it was cleared out, it quickly filled back up with about another 23,000 emails from everyone responding to all the emails I sent. It was crushing.

So, 12 years after Mann’s dictum, I am still struggling. I realized I needed to confront my demons: I needed to have it out with Merlin Mann himself. He joined me on Better Life Lab, the podcast about work-life balance that I host for New America and Slate.

I asked Mann about the idea of “Inbox Zero” as the ultimate Nirvana—this utopia that we all need to get to in this crazy-making world of constant email. I told him that, after I listened to his talk in 2007, I spent the entire night cleaning out my inbox, trying to get to “Inbox Zero.” When I finally looked up, I saw that it was 7 a.m. and it was time to start the day.

But Mann said I was doing it all wrong.

“Let’s not worry about ‘Inbox Zero’ so much, but let’s see what we can do to help you,” he says. “We can get you out of this situation and focused on the stuff you would really like to be doing. If you have time to check email, you have time to do something with that email. Otherwise, you shouldn’t even bother checking. A lot of times that’s deleting it, archiving it, it’s just not doing anything at all, it could be a short response, but I have to get it out of the way straight away.

‘Inbox Zero’ does not mean sit in your inbox all day and get rid of email—that’s quite the opposite of what I said, let alone intended.”

Mann says that the whole concept of “Inbox Zero” has been “willfully misperceived” and that it’s actually some kind of fun joke now.

“The truth of it is, the real zero is how much of your mind is on email,” he says. “I wouldn’t begin to say that’s a simple or easy problem to solve, but there are ways to do it. No matter what solution you come up with, it’s going to take a change of your own attitude, and then a very mindful attempt to [dedicate] yourself to having the life you want to have, rather than feeling led around by a bunch of bits and bytes on a computer.”

I like that idea—it seems like Mann is talking about a shift to “Mindset Zero.” He argues that the real problem is that our inboxes have become a source of anxiety, and like with anything, whether that’s Slack messages, social media, a person, or the onslaught of information, we can’t let these things run our lives.

“You would not put up with a cutlery drawer that sometimes had a wolverine in it, so how could you run your life out of something where, literally anybody can put anything in there?” he says. “If you carry around this mantle, this responsibility that you’re going to respond to every [email], you’re a crazy person.”

At this point, Mann says he kind of regrets ever saying the phrase Inbox Zero.

“All I wanted to do was help myself and help other people get their brains out of this idea that they had to be controlled by this thing,” he says.

But email input is never-ending, and it can be crazy-making—it is the wolverine in the cutlery drawer that a lot of us are living with. Bain & Co. has looked at how knowledge workers use email and how they work. They found that between emails and meetings, the average middle manager spends only six hours a week on concentrated, important, meaningful work. I would argue that the wolverine is running roughshod over all of us. But Mann says it’s all about your viewpoint.

“It’s a question of the expectations that you perceive, coming from other people, and the expectations that you have of yourself,” he says. “There’s no tip, trick, or life hack—anything that’s going to help you unless you get down to addressing how you look at this input in your life, and what you’re committed to doing about it.”

He continues: “I think a lot of it is a reluctance to realize that you can’t do everything. Nobody likes to let other people down. Nobody likes to say no, nobody likes to be obdurate or tardy. It makes us feel bad, we feel bad about ourselves, we feel like we’re being disrespectful of others.”

To get to “Inbox Zero,” many of us think that means responding to everything in the inbox. But in that, Mann says, we’re building the wrong expectations and setting the wrong priorities.

“You’re saying to somebody, My time is so up for grabs that I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and take care of it,” he says, meaning giving more time and attention to what’s important to the sender, whether or not it’s important to me. “I think I responded to your emails pretty quickly, [Brigid]. You know why? Because I look at my email once and I’m done. I think I pretty quickly said, Let’s schedule this right now. We didn’t have 17 different exchanges about needing to go out and have a cup of coffee and talk about it. There’s action. That is a very practical approach, but it’s all underpinned by a philosophical difference in the way that you choose to look at any input in your life. I think that’s difficult for people, and especially difficult when you feel like you’re the only one having trouble holding up your end.”

Mann insists we shouldn’t feel badly for not responding to email. But that’s a really human notion that the behavioral scientist Dan Ariely has discussed. He explains that it’s like when somebody taps you on the shoulder, what are you going to do? You’re not going to turn around? There’s something that feels very rude about ignoring all of that stuff in our inboxes. And yet, as Mann says, if you respond to everything, then you’ve just made everybody else’s priorities your agenda.

“I think teams have an opportunity to greatly improve the culture of how they work together when they explore tools that are there to solve a problem, rather than just open the passage to its largest aperture,” Mann says. “There’s a reason your house has a door. You’re not a jerk for closing your door after six o’clock. You’re not a jerk to close your door at all—it’s your house.”

It wasn’t always like this. Back when the internet first started, you had to physically be at a computer with a modem or a hardwired connection in order to communicate.

“Basically, it was like going to Mass to go to your email—you went to email and you did the email and then you went back to your job,” Mann says. “There was absolutely zero expectation you’d be able to do anything about it right then. You used a fax for something important. That’s really changed.”

Now, Mann argues that our email culture has become like the Wild West, where 25 people are copied on one message, and no one blinks an eye.

“I have all kinds of thoughts on how to write a good subject line, how to write a good short email that will get action from people, or get a response from people,” he says. “What I don’t have is a solution for how to stop billions of strangers from having access to you in a way that you have no control over. Only you can decide how you are going to govern that.”

But it’s not just about volume. Mann also concedes that, in many ways, email is about power.

“I’ll touch the third rail here and say there’s also an element of privilege to this, which is that the ability to decide how you’re going to deal with email is almost a class issue in some ways,” he says. “It’s certainly at least a hierarchical issue.”

He continues: “Over the years, I’ve become very interested in how culture works inside companies. I still really feel like, at best, the culture of your group is going to be defined by the most powerful people, and through two things: Basically, what they reward and what they tolerate.”

Many leaders send after-hour emails because they tend to not only tolerate but reward people who seem to be working all the time. Yet research has found that the mere anticipation of an after-hours email from your supervisor or your boss can create more stress than actually getting that email. It puts everybody in a state of constant vigilance and anxiety. You can’t disconnect and enjoy the rest of your life.

So now, more than a decade after he coined the term Inbox Zero, does Mann have any regrets?

“It’s just it’s become such a millstone that this 12-year-old idea is something that I’m supposed to constantly redefend, even though people can’t be troubled to listen to what I was actually trying to offer,” he says. “Inbox Zero does not mean you always keep your inbox empty. It means you’re an adult. You’ve got big boy or big girl pants, and you can make decisions on how you conduct yourself. Whatever your situation is, if you’ve accepted that input, that is something you have to take care of in a responsible way, if you have to spend eight hours a day doing email, then that’s your job now. I don’t know another way to slice it that’s more kind or honest, but the truth is, if that’s your job, then something’s got to change or you have to put on your résumé that you’re an email doer.”

As Mann was telling me all this, I realized that some air bubbles were forming over my head—like in cartoons. Those little thought bubbles filled with ampersands and exclamation points and number signs. I just wanted to stop—to freeze our conversation. I wished I could have someone else there listening over my shoulder like a friendly genie.

The voice I really wished I could hear belongs to Amy Westervelt, author of Forget “Having It All”: How America Messed Up Motherhood—and How to Fix It. She’s a busy freelance writer. She writes for the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal, and she just can’t afford to waste time on email. She says she loves Mann’s take on email and actually finds it funny.

“I feel like he has all the same reasons for Inbox Zero that I have for Inbox 100,000, which is that you can’t let someone’s need to send you an email at 2 a.m. dictate how you’re going to structure your day,” she says. “I’m impressed with his ability to train people not to send him email. I feel like I have the same approach as him … but I have not successfully dissuaded people from continuing to send me lots of emails.”

Westervelt says that while a shift to stop caring about email has led her to Inbox 100,000, it has also made her more productive.

“I wrote a book and started a company in the same year, and, I swear to God, a big part of it is just not doing email,” she says. “I realize that a lot of people really do have to respond to particular types of people—if it’s a boss or whatever—and that I’m in a position where I mostly work for myself. Although, it also feels like I work for 100 different people. I feel like you set that precedent with people. I have a couple people that I interact with, for example, who only check their email at two particular times a day.”

But Westervelt says that, like many of us, she just couldn’t check her email only two times a day.

“I get sucked in too much,” she says. “Sometimes I just search my email, I don’t even look at the first page of the inbox because I don’t want to get dragged into something that is not on my list for the day.”

A study published in the academic journal Computers in Human Behavior took a group of people and told them, for one week, to check their email three times a day, and for the following week, check it as many times as they wanted. What they found is that during the week when people limited their email checking, they were much less stressed out and much happier. I asked Westervelt how she deals with all of this.

“I don’t open my email on my computer when I’m doing other work, and I leave my phone in the car if I’m doing an errand, otherwise, I will [check my email],” she says. “It’s very easy to just be in line waiting for something and see if anything’s come in. It’s not even just the time that it takes—it takes my focus away from the thing I was doing, and then it takes me another extra 10 minutes to regain that focus. It doesn’t really deliver any value for wreaking all that havoc on my day.”

So in the end, whether it’s Inbox Zero or Inbox 100,000, the key is to think differently about email. The wolverine—endless emails, requests, the floor of information—will always be circling out there and ready to pounce. We just have to remember that our time and attention, our cutlery drawer, so to speak, are limited and precious. And it’s up to us to keep that damn wolverine out.

Click on the audio player above to hear the full conversation with Merlin Mann and Amy Westervelt, or listen to the show via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play.