It's hard to shock people these days, but shock them I do when I mention this fact: I have 45,613 emails in my inbox. This includes at least four figures worth of messages which I have never gotten around to opening, let alone deleting. I have never filed an email to a particular folder (beyond the trash) in my life.
It sounds like the beginning of a story of a life out of control, ready for an intervention. But while I used to wonder if there was something odd about my email habits, the more I learn about how people actually spend their time, the more I realize there's a lot to like about an unruly inbox - at least when it comes to actually getting things done.
Certainly, I know I'm a bit unusual in this opinion. When I first started researching productivity for my new book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, some folks mentioned the concept of "Inbox Zero" - that is, the zen-like state that ensues from having absolutely no emails in your inbox. They have all either been deleted or filed away, or otherwise cannot be acted upon. Some people have even taken screen shots when they've achieved this elusive state, much as nature photographers stalk snow leopards. Sightings are rare. When they occur, one must pounce.
At first I was intrigued. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that not only do I not wish to pursue an empty inbox, there are good reasons not to.
First of all, email storage is pretty much unlimited these days and deleting emails takes time. If something is clearly spam, I'll do a quick delete but I don't mind leaving other things sitting there. I find it no more bothersome than having papers on my desk, and I have never had a clean desk. Putting things in files also takes time, and so I don't bother. If I ever decide I need something, I don't have a hard time finding it -- the major commercial email providers all allow for adequate search. When email starts hitting my inbox rapidly, it is possible that things I mean to respond to will fall off the front page, and hence out of the active parts of my mind. But I usually take a few minutes toward the end of the day to scroll down and deal with things. If I intend to deal with it in a few days, I'll make a note on an old-fashioned piece of paper.
But here's the more crucial part of all this: I think putting energy into the pursuit of an empty inbox would give me a false sense of accomplishment. This is very similar to the false sense of accomplishment some people get by making their houses "clean" at some point in time. The house will just get dirty again, and your inbox will just fill up.
This false sense of accomplishment is dangerous because it makes you feel like you're working when, in fact, you're not really working -- if you define working (as I like to) as activities that are advancing you toward your professional goals and hopefully making the world a better place. At your retirement dinner, no one is going to talk about your great system for filing emails. They're not going to announce that you went home every night with a pristine inbox. They'll want to talk about what you've done.
This is a crucial distinction. Maybe your emails are filed, but so what? Have you written articles or books that advanced ideas? Have you helped design new products or services or brought them to the world's attention? Have you kept people safe, entertained or informed? Have you made your organization more efficient? Have you brought clean water to villages in Africa or taught children to read?
Email is not work. It is a tool for doing your work. Better to throw the time and energy you might spend pursuing a clean inbox into accomplishing something that actually matters.