Why 'Inbox Zero' Is Like a Fad Diet
For many of us, the constant ping of inbox alerts and the 24-hour nature of today's news cycle serve as a symbol for the stress of being constantly ON. If you could just get your inbox under control, then you could get off the tech treadmill and be fully in the moment, right?
It's an understandable goal, writes Handle co-founder Shawn Carolan on GigaOM, but it's never going to happen, at least not long term.
How does he know? Carolan has chased the inbox zero mirage and learned what's on the other side. He writes:
Over the past year-and-a-half while developing Handle, our entire company was in a race to zero. Inbox zero, to be precise. We set out to create a product that would allow us to leave work with zero emails in our inboxes and, so the thinking went, would lead to lives of zero stress (or at least until the next morning). We wanted to go home for dinner with friends and families and be fully present, in both body and mind. Wouldn’t that be amazing, transformative - invaluable, even?
Yes. So would alchemy, but neither exist. Inbox Zero, we discovered, is a mirage.
Like a fad diet, getting your inbox to zero only yields short-term results. In a burst of extreme discipline you can scrub your email account to sparkling, pristine condition. But just like that extreme diet, the results will soon fade away, leaving you more anxious and discouraged than before. So what's the inbox equivalent of sustainable, healthy living?
Setting priorities according to your individual values and getting everything floating around in your brain down on paper (or pixels). Psychologists have determined the real value in to-do lists is quieting something called the Zeigernik effect, which causes incomplete tasks to nag us. Simply writing down a detailed plan will kill the buzz and clear the mind.
Of course, as Carolan notes, this type of organization is essential but not sufficient as priorities are also about values. "Each moment is a value judgment, and only yours to make," he writes. Establishing what constitutes an unmissable "must-do" versus a message you can leave well alone involves values.
Is making a speaking engagement more important than your child's school play? Is mentoring a must, or is writing more important? These decisions, taken together, will define your life values, and nothing will make them easier.
With your values nailed down and must-dos planned out, pursuing inbox zero will be less important. If you want to feel better, much like getting in shape, it needs to come from a change in behavior and understanding your values--not bursts of obsessive guilt.
Have you had success achieving inbox zero?
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.