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Why An Empty Inbox Is Terrible For Productivity

Mark Hurst of Good Experience has had a deceptive experience. I feel for his sense of accomplishment, but I'm here to let him and everyone know that an empty inbox is a terrible recipe for lost productivity.

It was incredible. It was so stunning to me. I had written off the idea of ever having a totally empty inbox.

- Mark Hurst
The problem here is a subtle lie that none of realize we tell ourselves or others when we talk about the virtues of keeping a clean inbox. The word "inbox". I did all of this some time back, and I was really excited, just like Mark. It wasn't long before I realized I had only made things worse.

Some people may know that I slowly slipped away from Python-Dev lists, and what you wouldn't know is one of the key causes to my lack of participation in mailing lists for some time now. The problem started when I added filters for all my mailing lists and started regiments to empty out my inbox to 0. I sat, looked at my wonderous empty inbox, and spent the next few months continually ignoring the non-empty labels hidden off in the label listing.

Sure, my inbox can stay empty these days, but all we're doing is hiding the problem. Hiding a problem is not a solution.


Oliver Andrich said…
I disagree with you cause for me the "empty inbox" habit works and I donh't forget about the other labels. But only cause I added another habit to the "empty the inbox" habit. I regularly (about twice a week) check these mailing list labels and work through them.

In the end I kept the distraction caused my mailing list emails away from my daily work. And on the other hand ended up with a higher quality of participation on the mailing lists I am active on.

None of the mailing lists is essential for my job in the first place. So I can stick to my habit of checking them twice a week. If they would be essential for my work, I would implement a habit, that I check them once a day in the afternoon. Just as I do with my RSS feeds.

Just my $0.02. The "empty inbox" habit alone is fooling you, in that part I agree with you. But it is still a good habit and has to be embedded in your other habits.

Cheers, Oliver
Jay said…
Just like a real physical inbox if you just use it to collect stuff then it will be a nightmare, if you check it regularly tho you can keep it clean and under control. I have emails routed to different folders. I unsubscribe to old subscriptions to cut down on junk mail. I also check it alot.
Anonymous said…
I kind of agree with the post. I strongly disagree with the idea that an empty inbox is a bad thing per ce, but the way they do it with filtering and other automatic solutions. That just spreads your inbox.

The thing is - the IN-box is supposed to be an IN-box. To me that is a GTD-inbox. everything that needs handling comes there. And in the Gmail/GoogleApps case I get my old dialog mail back with the new one - great for all being stuff to handle.

If I get a subscription to something I want to _have_ rather than _handle_ then thats a "some-day-maybe" or most of the time "reference". But the subscriptions intended for participation shouldnt be hidden away as if they're handled.

BUT.. I do think an inbox empty because its handled is a great thing. I get 50-500 emails a day - and I always get to zero. By a simpel GTD system. When I am lacy I Star/flag an email that I dont want to decide on what to do right away. Most emails I actually handle (NOT answer, handle) immidiately (define next action, do if less than 2 min etc). In both cases, I archive the email - its either handled in my GTD-system or starred for rereading within a day or so.

Thats my way - I know I sort of bought the whole David Allen/GTD concept as it is.. but it works wounders for me..

/Oliver (not Andrich) =)
ThePurpleSeal said…
Hi there,

I just found your blog, it was a great read! Just thought it may interest you to know, a while back i managed to find a british labels company who printed me some mailing labels for a really low price. If you are at all interested then it may be worth taking a look at their website.

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