In Praise of the Tiny Inbox

Wired just ran an article entitled “Everything You Thought You Knew About Inbox Zero Is Wrong.” In it, Merlin Mann who claims to have invented the idea of “Inbox Zero” recants essentially everything. He basically says “never mind”.

Merlin was right. And is now wrong.

For decades, since the early 1990’s, I’ve been an advocate — some would say religious zealot — for the tiny inbox. Not “inbox zero”, more like “inbox tiny”. When I was in the office for an everyday workday, I had a firm rule to never go home with a scroll bar in my inbox. That usually meant something like 10-15 messages in my inbox. (Though I will admit to one time requisitioning a larger monitor, just to get a bigger inbox.)

When I was a VP at a Fortune 500 company and got hundreds, sometimes thousands of emails a day, I held fast: no going home with a scroll bar. It can be done. More on that below.

I firmly believe that a messy inbox is huge red flag. For a lot of reasons: It is a sign of messy thinking. It is signals confused priorities. It indicates someone who can’t complete even the simplest of maintenance tasks reliably. And forget about following up with someone like that with “remember that email I sent you?” They have no idea what you’re talking about.

My strong feelings about the tiny inbox have cost me, to be sure.

My strong feelings about the tiny inbox have cost me, to be sure. I’ve pissed off more than one person about it. I’ve lost friends over it. I’ve probably missed out on some good hires over it.

And you’ll never convince me otherwise. Even today, semi-retired, I feel dirty with more than 15 or so messages in my inbox.

My method is simple. I learned it from the movers who transported our family across the country. I asked the mover how they coped with all the chaos. He said simply: “Touch everything, every box, every piece of furniture, precisely once. Move it from the house to the correct spot in the truck in one effort. The minute you start with the: move it, make a pile, move that pile, move it again, rearrange it, … you’ve lost.”

Touch every email precisely once

Since then, I’ve applied that to email. Unless it is an active item on your currently active to-do list, touch every email precisely once. Open it, then do something with it. Read it, then: reply to it, forward (delegate) it, or delete it. Once you’ve touched it, dispatch it, get it out of your inbox. The only thing left in your inbox should be active reminders of things you are working on. Everything else is filed appropriately.

Don’t get me wrong, I have gigabytes of emails. I have emails going back 25 years. They’re all just filed. And if you wanted one of them, I could find it. If it’s in the last year, it’s right here and I could find it in seconds. Older might take me a short while, but if you really wanted it, I could find it. That alone has saved my tail more than once.

I even regularly (every couple of months) go through my sent mails, sort them, and file them with the matching conversations in the appropriate folder. That too has proved helpful.

As I sit here right now, there are 22 messages in my inbox and I have work to do. I’m getting on that when I finish this.

So yes, Merlin, Inbox Tiny is a thing. Yes it’s important. And no, I wasn’t wrong.