The dark side of inbox zero

Inbox Zero is a trap

Or: when your colleague’s inbox zero bliss results in inbox hell for you

In the startup world, when you mention that you’re working towards / or you have reached ‘inbox zero’, you’ll get some admiring nods from whoever is listening to you. Not from me though. I’ll let you in on a secret: inbox zero is a lie. Why? Because answering all your mails – preferably before 8 am so no-one will be up to write a reply – means you’ll create ‘inbox overflow’ for your co-workers. Just pushing unreads back and forth is not going to ‘fix’ email (yes, it’s broken).

Chief Email Officer

Our CEO often jokes that the ‘E’ in his job title stands for ‘Email’. Working on the same desk, I do see a constant stream of messages coming in on his screen. There’s very little you can do about the email behavior of your clients, business contacts or external email fanatics. The very least we – as a team – can do is creating filters and stop bothering each other with loads of non-descriptive emails and funsies (or maybe create a chat room for that sort of things – one that you can mute).

CC ALL the people

Cc-ing loads of people in emails is about the same thing as saying: “I have no idea who’s responsible, I’m just gonna throw it out there, see what happens”. There are typically a few possible responses to this behavior – none of which with the desired outcome:

  • “I’m always the first to answer, let someone else do it.”
  • “The one who is responsible will answer, I don’t have to bother myself with reading this (oh look, is it that late already? LUNCH!).”
  • “If he/she wants something from me, he/she should talk to me.”
  • “Blabla… we need someone to do the shopping for the Christmas par-” aaaaand delete.

cc-ing everyone is a bad idea

Notification hell

Using one or another social medium? Still on the receiving end of that newsletter that is remotely interesting (that’s why you haven’t unsubscribed – yet) but you don’t really have time to read? Using all kinds of Saas and Paas services that send you updates on their features (I realize we do that too, we’re sorry, we love you)? Subscribed to the comments on your company’s blog? Then you’re probably suffering from notification hell.

It’s particularly ironic that almost every web-based productivity tool such as project management suites or bug trackers are massively sending email notifications for every action your team members are taking. Isn’t it one of the main purposes of such tools to create peace in your inbox? If a tool really needs to get your retention via constant emails it maybe does not fit its intended purpose.

The solution

Yes! There is one. Or actually, several combined. First there needs to be a behavorial change. Start using a project management tool or bug tracker to collect communication in a central place and adjust their notification settings. Sending bug reports, feature requests and all kinds of random thoughts, links and marketing ideas around via email creates chaos. Good luck finding ‘epic upselling idea #42’ in your inbox, when you’re about to enter that important vision-mission meeting with the management team… Instead of throwing everything in your PM tool, go about it in a structured way. Create subfolders (with tags!) and manage your notification settings so you’ll get notifications when you actually have time to tackle them.

Second, when an email conversation keeps dragging on, it might be time to just walk up to your co-workers desk – or schedule a Skype call/Google Hangout/you-name-it, when you’re a distributed team – to resolve the task at hand in a more efficient way. Between emails you’ll (probably) do loads of other stuff, and you’ll need time to get back into the topic again, e-ve-ry time you get a reply. Just imagine how much of your time is wasted on something that could easily be solved by just talking to each other!

Stop cc-ing everyone. Find out who’s responsible and address your email to him or her specifically. Another pro-tip: stop cc-ing your manager in conversations they have nothing to do with, just to show of how many emails you can write a day / how much you got to say about ‘things’. It’s extremely unproductive. Not only are you getting on your managers nerves, filling up their inbox, but your emails come across as passive-aggressive towards your team mates. Do your job, work together with your co-workers, and only report when asked or when you really feel the urge to.

Good luck.