Imagine an inbox with zero unread mails


The new Holy Grail of personal effectiveness and business productivity.

I have a confession. I’ve been clean for eight weeks. Rid of a monkey on my back that threatened to engulf me and destroy my concentration, focus and productivity. Yes, I was suffering from abuse of my e-mail inbox.

Dramatic steps were needed when I reached the unmagic mark of 2 000 e-mails during March. They were all waiting to be answered, stored, or deleted. But they had to be read before I could make that decision. I knew that if the number went much beyond 2 000, there could well be no coming back.

I was fortunate, though, that I faced that moment as a string of public holidays appeared on the calendar. That meant days of no interruption and limited new e-mail inflow. With the help of a supportive family, I spent four days solidly working through the pile and came out the other end clean. I am still clean as I start writing this confession. Why is it such a big deal?

Two years ago, in this column, I wrote: “It’s the new Holy Grail of personal effectiveness and business productivity: an empty inbox in your e-mail. “I know it sounds like a fantasy, and perhaps even smacks of the supernatural. But it exists. I’ve seen it twice in the past decade. The first time, around 2004, it brought such a sense of freedom that I neglected my e-mail for a few days and never caught up again, until last week.”

That also lasted only a few days, which is why the current achievement feels like a breakthrough. And why I feel somewhat more confident in offering the advice originally proffered: “A colleague gave me a simple piece of advice: take the office phone off the hook, put the cellphone on silent, shut the door, close all browsers and extraneous documents, and start. It doesn’t matter if you start with the oldest or the newest, as long as you begin to work through the pile in a systematic way.”

While I find that approach impossible on working days, the holidays simulated those conditions perfectly. Merlin Mann, who is credited with coining the term “inbox zero” in a series of articles and a talk of the same name – you can watch it on YouTube – recommends you work methodically through your e-mail mound, not moving on until you’ve made one of five choices for each item: delete or archive, delegate, respond, defer, do.

In my seventh week of greater productivity brought about by inbox zero, I gave a talk at the annual convention of the Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa. Several dozen of the most sought-after speakers in South Africa, ranging from firewalkers to organisational psychologists, all in one place.

These are people who face an endless barrage of e-mail almost every time they give a talk. It was a golden opportunity: during the convention, I ran a snap survey to see the extent to which self-described professionals cope with e-mail floods. The results were fascinating.

No less than 60% of respondents said they were overwhelmed by e-mail most of the time or some of the time. The exact same percentage receive more than 50 e-mails a day and 60% had more than 50 e-mails still waiting to be dealt with in their inboxes. An even larger 65% said their e-mail load was a barrier to productivity, while a massive 75% said they wished they could manage their e-mail better.

Bear in mind, these are people who make a living from giving advice to others. A mere 30% had between zero and 20 mails waiting to be handled and only a third of these – 10% of the total – had cleared their e-mail the last time they had checked it.

The most fascinating aspect of this survey – small as the sample might be – as that it didn’t show a gradual curve of e-mail overload. People tended to have it under control – or it was completely out of control. This shows that, once you let it go, it becomes a monster. And that monster will eat up your focus and your productivity.

Like drug abuse and alcohol abuse, the inability to reach inbox zero is a self-limiting condition. It can be as difficult to fight, but the rewards can be as great.


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