The case for inbox infinity.
The day after Christmas, I spent seven hours sifting through more than 2,700 unread emails I had accumulated over the previous month. Like many other people, I intended to begin 2019 with a fresh inbox and zero unread messages.
Since the idea of “Inbox Zero” was first coined in 2007 by Merlin Mann, a blogger who championed “finding the time and attention to do your best creative work,” it has become what many people consider the pinnacle of digital organization. Hundreds of articles have been written on how to achieve Inbox Zero. Products such as Polymail, Mailstrom, and Superhuman were all built to help make our inboxes more manageable. And a growing number of offices have instituted chat systems such as Slack to help minimize interoffice emails.
Despite all these developments, we receive more email than ever. Email marketing systems and sales-generation software have made it easier to blast consumers with repeated messages at all hours of the day, and nearly every social-media app or service seems bent on barraging users with endless email notifications. According to a recent study by the Radicati Group, a market-research firm, people across the globe sent and received 269 billion emails a day in 2017. By 2021, that number is projected to reach more than 333 billion.
In 2019, I suggest you let it all go. There is simply no way for anyone with a full-time job and multiple inboxes to keep up with the current email climate. Even after deleting and sorting my 2,700 unread messages, I awoke the next day to more than 400 more. The writer Emily Dreyfuss told me she has more than 300,000 unread messages in her inbox. After complaining about my email problem publicly on Facebook, friends in fashion, tech, corporate finance, law, advertising, and retail all bemoaned their multiple inboxes swelling with messages.
Some people still delude themselves into thinking they can manage their email. They adopt strange rituals: emailing first thing in the morning, never emailing in the morning, reading email but not responding to it, organizing everything into folders, emailing exclusively like a boss. Software fixes such as Gmail smart replies have made responding to email easier, but often a response just elicits more email.
“Part of the reason why we get so many emails is that we’ve all been told this story about how we need to respond quickly to be productive and meet expectations,” said John Zeratsky, an author and designer who worked in the tech industry for 15 years. “But if you respond quickly, you have a reputation for being responsive, people send you more messages, and it kind of feeds on itself.” Zeratsky said that he, too, once subscribed to the idea of Inbox Zero, before he realized it was burning him out.
“I think as people understand the idea of Inbox Zero now, it’s a total disaster. I don’t see how anyone could run a business or make a living as a freelancer or do any kind of meaningful work by replying to every email in their inbox all the time so that it’s always empty,” said Max Temkin, a designer and co-creator of Cards Against Humanity.
All of these coping mechanisms are inferior to one simple solution: inbox infinity. Adopting inbox infinity means accepting the fact that there will be an endless, growing amount of email in your inbox every day, most of which you will never address or even see. It’s about letting email messages wash over you, responding to the ones you can, but ignoring most.
Deborah Arthurs, an editor in London, said that she used to subscribe to Inbox Zero, but has become much happier since embracing her 90,000+ email inbox. “For me, striving for Inbox Zero is like holding back the tides. It’s an exhausting exercise in futility that without the most stringent of housekeeping, I will never win,” she said. “I have heard so many times, ‘How hard is it to answer an email?’ But some people don’t realize that I physically couldn’t even open every email I receive, let alone answer each one.” Simply accepting that, she said, has made email much more manageable.
One critical step in the inbox-infinity method is to publicly admit that you have too much email to handle and be up front about not responding. You can start by messaging close contacts and family members, providing them with alternative ways to reach you. A friendly message to relatives might say, “Hi, I’m overwhelmed with email these days. I’d still love to hear from you, but if you want to reach me, I’d much prefer a call on the phone. My number is X.”
Setting up a custom out-of-office autoresponder also helps set expectations. I adopted mine from Ryan Hoover, an angel-investor founder of Product Hunt. Several months ago, he set up a permanent out-of-office message that reads:
I’m spending less time in my inbox to focus on Product Hunt/AngelList with the team and investing on the weekends.
If there’s anything urgent related to Product Hunt, feel free to reach out to: [contact information for others at the company].
“As much as I’d love to get to Inbox Zero, it’s not the best use of my time when I have so many other commitments I’ve made to my team, friends, and family,” Hoover said via Twitter direct message. “I have a permanent auto-responder in large part because people email for Product Hunt related things that should be routed elsewhere … It’s more efficient for those emailing me and helps reduce some of my email stress.”
Not everyone has a job where they can manage this: A client will not likely accept your new inbox-infinity Zen state as an excuse for a missed deadline. However, even instituting this policy in your personal inbox will make your life saner.
Since putting up my own out-of-office responder on my personal inbox and adopting inbox infinity, I’ve felt my stress about opening my mailbox decrease. I’ve also found that setting the expectation that I may never see or reply to an email makes people even more grateful when they do get a response. I’ve even started sending fewer emails, a consequence of spending less time in my inbox.
If part of your New Year’s resolution is to somehow maintain Inbox Zero, know that it’s never too early to bail. Molly Beck, the CEO of the podcast-software company Messy.fm, said she realized Inbox Zero would never work for her the day she achieved it. “I wanted to email my work BFF to tell her I finally did it [reached Inbox Zero],” Beck said. “But I was worried she would email me back.”