Get To Work: The Case Against Inbox Zero

A few years ago, a coworker and I had a conversation on topic of email. Her inbox contained tens of thousands of emails, and as she explained why she didn’t clean it up, she raised a good point—why put all that energy into sorting email when you can just search for what you’re looking for?

Inbox Zero is a favorite concept of many productivity wonks: You work to clear out your email inbox on a regular basis, filing away the messages you need and deleting the rest. The idea here is to the inbox as a temporary landing place for email, not a permanent home for messages. It’s a neat concept and has its advantages, but in some ways, it feels a little like a carryover from the snail mail days.

Email, of course, is conceptually based on good ol’ snail mail: You send email to addresses, just as you do with physical letters. You include a subject line, just as you might with a printed memo. Your email arives in your mailbox; incoming mail goes to your inbox, while outgoing mail goes to your outbox.

When you deal with physical documents such as mail, you need to deal with it all somehow. You sort it, you trash what you don’t need, you file away what do need to keep.

But email messages aren’t paper documents: In the real world, you have no choice but to physically manage paper documents—there is no Google or Spotlight for hard copy documents. You have no alternative but to sort and file documents, lest you become completely overwhelmed by it all.

The same applied to email—and documents on your hard drive—15 years ago. At one time, back when I was still in college, I had a fairly exhaustive system for sorting documents: I organized files in folders organized year, then by class, then by assignment as needed. Search technology was still lacking, so it was the easiest way to find your files.

But in 2015, we have robust email searching features—you can find documents, either on your hard drive or in the cloud—in moments, just by typing a few keystrokes. This sort of instant search reduces the need for such a rigid filing structure—for me, anyway.

Why You Should Still Try Inbox Zero

Still, you might find an inbox filled with thousands of messages to be an overwhelming, intolerable mess. If you lose emails readily—and if you find leaving emails you need to attend to marked as unread to be a kludge at best—Inbox Zero might be the right approach for you. Also, I can see how starting with a clean inbox may feel cathartic, and just as I need reasonably tidy physical workspaces to function, I don’t doubt that some function better with a filing system for emails.

Meeting In The Middle

Still, even though I don’t see the point in filing away every email I receive, my inbox isn’t a complete free-for-all.

Most of my email sits in my inbox. But not all of it. I do keep a separate mailbox for certain messages—such as emailed receipts—that I like to keep for my personal records. I also periodically go through and clean out any promotional emails—Twitter updates, newsletters, advertising, and so on—that I may have overlooked. If I need to respond to an email, I either leave it marked as unread or find other ways of reminding myself to reply.

So there is some sense of order to my inbox, even if it seems chaotic at first glance. Maybe you’re in the same boat.

We Want Your Suggestions

What’s your email filing system look like? We’d love to hear from you: Shoot a note to nmediati at macgasm dot net and tell us how you make sense of your inbox. We may even publish your submission–with your permission, of course.

Nick spends way too much time in front of a computer, so he figures he may as well write about it. He's previously written for IDG's PCWorld and TechHive.