Don’t Try to Defeat Your Inbox. You Will Lose.

‘Inbox Zero’ is a terrible mirage.

We all dream of it. A beautiful, completely empty inbox. Nobody waiting for you to respond. Nobody nagging you for your attention. Just you and your beautiful empty inbox, in total homeostasis with the world.

If you’ve ever aimed for Inbox Zero and achieved it, you know that it feels great.

For a moment.

Then another email appears in your inbox. Then another. A wave of anxiety returns, and you are faced with two horribly unpleasant options:

1. Chain yourself to your inbox, zapping every email that appears, until the day you die.

2. Let the inbox build itself up once again, your victory all too fleeting.

I think it’s safe to assume that nobody considers the first option practical. Anyone who does might already have some semi-serious psychological conditions. If they don’t, they will soon.

Your inbox, like your life, is in a constant state of flux. New things are always happening that disturb the balance and tax your attention. Attempting to fight that fact will lead you to nothing but frustration. And a still nonempty inbox.

Pursuing Inbox Zero without the proper perspective is a subscription for pain and disappointment. When you’re trying to get a handle on your correspondence, first frame your expectations as follows:

Email is something not to be conquered, but managed.

Over time, I will be exploring inbox management techniques in a way that accounts for the neverending nature of incoming email. That may include structured exercises focused on achieving some form of ‘Inbox Zero,’ but I believe part of the issue is in rethinking how we define the word ‘Inbox’ in the first place.


  • Nathan

    Maybe I’m just not important enough to get overrun by email,  but with my gmail currently hovering around 20% of allotted capacity and at Inbox Zero this very moment, I don’t see the big fuss over too much email.  The people that I see stressing about this from my perspective are unable to prioritize some emails as more important than others. 

    I’m subscribed to 20 high capacity mailing lists on that account right now, all of which thanks to gmail are filtered to skip my inbox and wait for me to check them at a time that’s convenient for me.  Not to get all eastern philosophy on you, but it’s truly a state of mind.

  • Tony Bacigalupo

    Fair point; this post applies specifically to people who are struggling with a constant barrage of emails… either because of the nature of their work, or a lack of restraint in signing up for mailing lists and notifications.

    Do you not deal with much email correspondence at all, or are you just good at staying on top of it? Do you consistently maintain an empty inbox?