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Zero Inbox Ping Pong

For several years, I bought into the “zero inbox” story without giving it any thought, because it sounded so simple.  I was entirely unfamiliar with any of Merlin Mann‘s actual work in inventing it. Total unaware of any of the serious discussion surrounding the past decade or more

I had never ever heard Mann’s key thought about zero inbox: “Stop treating inbox zero as a means to an end.” Maybe I should have gotten a hint that he says “inbox zero” while I and everyone I had been reading called it “zero inbox.”

Stop treating inbox zero as a means to an end.

I don’t think I ever had a real implementation plan to go with it. I had a  terribly naive strategy and I had seen no discussion of non-naive strategies.

Unsurprisingly, I can’t say that I did really well at achieving zero inbox and even less success at maintaining it.

For a while I had a personal KPI inbox count with some issues around the 8 am artifact of the “deferred” email and “tickle reminders” being delivered at 8 am. It anti-correlated reasonably well with the chaos level of my life.

Only recently after reading Cal Newport‘s book A World Without Email did I consider the possibility that my zero inbox plan might be really dumb.

My insight wasn’t about deep work, lack of prioritization, etc., but rather a simple shallow thought experiment

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Imagine a two-player turn-based game.  Chess. Checker. Twenty Questions. Whatever.

Imagine playing by email.

Leaving aside email delays, it will always be in either your inbox or your counter-parties. You can’t both have it not there. You might decide that you will only make one move per day, and have the second move that arrives in a day automatically deferred to tomorrow, or that your move gets held by your server and isn’t delivered until the end of the workdays. You might decide that when you read it you move it to a task queue perhaps a part of the reply  | delete | file | en queue strategy.

It’s not that you can’t make a zero inbox practice that works for this type of situation.

It’s simply that I didn’t.

My use plan was naive and this simple case showed me that my failure of zero inbox was not a moral failing, not an insufficiency of time or attention, but rather an incredibly poor match by my practice of (or better said, an attempt at the practice of) zero inbox and the realities of life.

I didn’t know it yet, but I needed an actual understanding that could be turned into a plan.

That understanding began with understanding the nature of this zero. Zero is not the number of messages in the inbox. It is about the amount of time that a message should spend in an inbox and about the amount of mindshare it should get. Inbox Zero was about applying David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) to email.

So as a precursor to really adopting Inbox Box, I would need to adopt GTD, and that is a story in itself. A story for another day.

Written by Russell Brand

Russell has started three successful companies, one of which helped agencies of the federal government become very early adopters of open source software, long before that term was coined. His first project saved The American taxpayer 250 million dollars. In his work within federal agency, he was often called, “the arbiter of truth,” facilitating historically hostile groups and factions to effectively work together towards common goals


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