Inbox Non-Zero

Tuesday, December 10, 2019; Reading time 8 minutes.

UPDATE: There is now a service that does exactly what this post says - hey.com. Go check it out, I use it!

For the past few years, I’ve been reading up on inbox zero. Google even released an application for helping you achieve inbox zero. It’s a globally accepted way of handling your work, email, and todos. But I think differently - I’ll try to paint my point of view on why inbox zero is not unique or helpful but a misuse of a tool.

What is inbox zero?

This methodology advocate using your email inbox as your todo list. The emails that require action are either left in your inbox and dealt with a later date or right now, and irrelevant emails are archived/deleted. The main aim is to have your inbox at 0 (zero) emails - not zero unread but zero in total.

I’ve seen shops that advocate and force this to some extent. I agree that for some people, this works, and it worked for me, too, until I found issues with this approach. If you use this method of work, read on and keep an open mind!

The misuse

The main problem behind this is the misuse of a tool. I think we can all agree that the primary function of the email is asynchronous information delivery. All of this is represented as a kind of a “letter.” As you do not respond to all the letters you receive via snail mail, you do not respond to all the emails you receive. But don’t get me wrong I am the first one to misuse my inbox. Let’s see what I have right now in both personal and work email inboxes.

Personal:

  1. A newsletter
  2. DHL notification
  3. A letter from a friend
  4. Credit card bill
  5. A response to a question regarding a fix of an old phone
  6. Another reaction from another shop for the same thing
  7. Purchase receipt for a tire change
  8. My phone bill
  9. Internet bill

Work:

  1. 20x GitHub notifications for PR’s: merge, review request, comments
  2. 15x productive.io notifications about assigned tasks or responses
  3. A memo from HR about donations
  4. A memo from a team member about his absence
  5. Calamari request for vacation from a team member

The issue is not visible right away on my personal mail account but straight away on my work account. Notifications. Notifications are not letters - they are short bursts of data (see data vs. information) sent because of app or site lacks a proper way of delivering these pings.

Notifications

Take Uber as an example. The way it works is the following: you order up an Uber driver and get two push notifications. After the drive has ended, you receive an email with the invoice. This way of delivery is an excellent way of handling notifications and emails. Uber sends short info via push (one or two sentences) and the invoice, which you might save for reimbursement later, via an email.

Github, on the other hand, is awful at this. It sends both the notification in the app (the bell icon) and both the email. Github notification flow results in a minimum of 2 emails per PR. Two emails in this case that serve no other purpose than me clicking on the “view on Github” link.

When you have a “central” place of handling notifications - and the abused inbox is one - you tend to make that a todo list.

Central?

Many arguments revolve around this being your central hub for everything, but is that so? Take a look at your phone and laptop to see how many apps have their notifications. How many apps send emails along with notifications that you turn into your todos?

Even if you say not a single one, do you have a todo app? How do you track other tasks? Do you have Jira/Productive/Slack reminders? Your notifications are scattered all over the place, and if you treat notifications as todos, your todos are as well.

My setup

For Github pull requests, I use github.com and their notification list. Once I get a notification there, I either open it up and act or enter that in my todo list. Either way, I mark the notification as seen right away. When I was using the email for this in a few months, I reached 1,000 notifications on Github. If I have to clean up my email inbox from Github notifications and then if I have to do it from their website, this can’t be right. The emails I get from Github I ignore, and they linger in the inbox until I delete everything.

For Productive (task management) notifications - those I turned off. I use the website to manage what I’ve seen and what I haven’t. My tasks are not placed on my todo list. I don’t like duplications.

I don’t read all of my emails. The only one that I go thru is the ones that are not notifications. If an email I received requires me to act on it right away, I do it, and archive/delete it right away. If I’ll do it later, it goes into my todo list, and I either do it over email, in person, or over slack. The email is deleted, depending on what I need to do. When it gets deleted, it’s not really important to me.

Take this example - we received a donation request from the HR. In that email, we had a link to a Google Drive Spreadsheet where we could sign up. When I read that email, I’ve created a todo note with the link to the spreadsheet and closed the email. Once I was ready to act on it, I clicked the link and did the work. The todo was marked as completed. I didn’t delete an email right away because I don’t care. I’ll do it sometimes later, probably in a batch.

The lie

From what I’ve seen people doing and from what I’ve seen myself do - we mistake the Inbox Zero as work completed flag. And if everything I needed to do were really in my email inbox, I would be a strong advocate for that. But since people scatter their todos all over the place: the apps, post-its, notebooks, even code files `// TODO:`; once your email client is clean, there might be some more work to be done.

And that’s why the main argument of Inbox Zero fails for me: “I feel better when my inbox is clean.” I never really do until my todo list is clean and empty. That means that I have to do some manual work by entering all of the todos from everywhere. I call that planning my work.

The todos

How you handle them, it’s all up to you. The main point is for you to be fast and happy. I don’t use apps; I use a text file along with my real-life notebook. I’ve tried a lot of apps for this, but in the end, nothing did the trick for me.