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Why Inbox Zero Is Ruining Your Craft

Inbox Zero is a trend that became popular over the last few years with the single goal and mindset towards clearing your email inbox and to-do list as often as possible. Let me clearly state I was a slave to Inbox Zero until recently within the last year. The endorphin hit is amazing. That feeling that you’re finished. Whether it’s answering all your emails or checking off the tasks in your inbox. But what are we exchanging for this endorphin hit and mentality? Let’s dive in.

Why Inbox Zero Sucks

I’m a fan of Cal Newport’s work and especially his book Deep Work. It’s an easy read that talks about the war for our attention and the negative impact it has on our ability to create and innovate. With focus and distraction-free environments, it can be impossible to create anything of real value. So how does this tie into Inbox Zero?

Well think of it this way. The whole goal of Inbox Zero is to prioritize and incentivize answering all your emails or finishing all your tasks in your to do list for the day. This means that you’re rewiring your brain to believe that the most important thing you can do with your waking mind and energy is answer emails and check off to dos in. If when you started your craft someone told you that you’d be measuring your working time against the amount of times you can clear out your email inbox or to do list, you’d probably tell them to screw off and you’d basically rather work in any other career. Most of us came to this career and field with a yearn to create things that are emotionally complex and somehow innovative or interesting.

And the truth is, you probably aren’t moving toward that goal by clearing out your inbox or to do lists. So in essence, the whole Inbox Zero craze is making us prioritize doing things that are not really what we signed up for and aren’t directly leading to our actual goal of creating compelling and innovative things.

The Middle Ground

I know you’re thinking right now “but some of those emails are really important and some of those tasks are related to creating compelling and innovative things!” Great! If they are, then you should pursue them with full force….but….I bet 90% of the emails in your inbox actually don’t matter and a bunch of the items on your to do lists are just random tasks that you have to do.

Think of it another way. Would you rather:

  1. Spend 2 hours in your email inbox, or
  2. Spend 30 minutes in your email inbox and an 1 hour and 30 minutes doing something creative

If you answered with number 1, you will succeed and go far in life in middle management roles. But I would bet that most of you answered with number 2. And what’s the real difference between 1 and 2? Nothing but an artificial prioritization and incentivization (not a real word?) towards “keeping up” and “getting things done!” Let’s also make it clear that number 2 doesn’t imply that you’ll never answer emails. It still supposes that 25% of your emails are critically important to advancing your craft, which I would bet is still way too much time a day for emails.

So of course there is a middle ground and gradient! I’m not saying it’s binary. If the colour blue is our “craft” and the colour red is “email and stuff to do”, our current culture treats our day like this:

20% time spent on “craft” and 80% time spent on “stuff”

But our “common sense” and better judgement really should lean the other way:

80% time spent on “craft” and 20% time spent on “stuff”

What To Try Instead

There are many different ways to re-tune your brain and attitude to discriminate against tasks and time spent on things that won’t directly advance your craft. One great start would be to read Deep Work by Cal Newport. It goes over a lot of techniques and strategies for re-orienting your life and work towards your craft. Other things are easy things to try that will 100% change your life are below.

Email blocks

Set aside 30 minutes in the morning when you start your work day to answer emails, and then another 30 minutes right before you finish your work day. For the rest of the day, close your email client. Just leave it closed and don’t check, read, or respond to anything outside of email blocks. If it REALLY REALLY REALLY is an emergency, someone will probably call you. Otherwise it’s an “emergency.” Doing this will free up a lot of mental energy over the course of the day and save you a lot of time doing nothing in your email inbox.

Focus for 90 minutes straight

This will be a tough one for many people, because we’re not used to focusing (I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true!). I’m not talking cheap focus like “oh ya I’m focusing, let me just go to the bathroom and grab a drink brb.” I mean like real deep focus. Go to the bathroom before hand, bring a bottle of water, turn off your phone, close every app on your computer, set the rest of the computer to silent mode so there’s no notification, and then pick one thing that you want to really sink your teeth into for 90 minutes and focus exclusively on that. The first time you do this will be hard, but if you start to practice the ability to focus, you’ll soon find yourself consistently getting into flow states with your work and really making progress on things you probably thought were not possible to make progress on so quickly.

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Organize your inbox

If you are in a type of work that does still require email communications, like myself where I have to run businesses and such, you can take back mental control of your inbox by doing simple things like organizing your inbox. For example, you could make 4 different folders in your email account:

  • HUGE return
  • Large return
  • Medium return
  • Low or no return

Then when you start your day and are doing your emailing, before you answer any emails, you quickly look at them all and assign them to one of the 4 folders. HUGE return for emails that by answering would provide an incredible return for you, like if someone reaches out and wants to interview you for a big publication or similar. There probably won’t be much in HUGE return to be honest. Large return is a step down from that and things that would give you a large return in your career, so things like clients asking how to pay you after a gig or maybe a project you’re working on has an important deadline approaching where someone actually requires your input. Medium return is a step down for that, for me this is where I send quotes for clients I’ve worked with before (who know that I’m not bargain barrel talent!) and maybe meeting requests. Depending on where you’re at in your career, cold email requests to pitch on projects might be in the medium return as well (or even large return if you’re really early in the career and need some gigs). Then finally low return is everything else. Like people asking what’s up or random emails I get asking for advice.

When you go to answer your emails, you start from HUGE return and answer all of those before you ever move to a large return email, and similarly you finish all the large return emails before ever moving to medium return. It’s funny because you might experience a cognitive dissonance at this exact moment where on one hand the system makes total sense because you should prioritize higher return items vs lower return items but then you feel like “what if I never even get to medium or low return items?!” To be honest, that’s a good problem to have!

Wrap up

So obviously I can’t go into detail about every strategy I’ve ever come up with and I can’t give you the Coles Notes on Deep Work, you’ll have to read that yourself, but I can’t stress enough the importance of focusing on your craft. The more you focus on your craft the more progress you’ll make and the more you’ll be known as someone who creates great work. That is ultimately our goal and the first thing people think about when they want to hire someone or work with you. Good luck!