The internet is constantly changing and evolving, with companies and technologies rising to dominance only to be eclipsed and forgotten faster than you can say "stock market bubble." AOL bullied their way to dominance of the dial-up era via a junk mail marketing campaign, only to be replaced by portals like Yahoo and Lycos, who in turn fell before Google, Amazon and Facebook.
But through all this upheaval, one technology remains consistent: email. In fact, email predates even the internet itself. Like the paperclip and the bicycle, email endures largely unchanged because it does what it's supposed to do so efficiently it can't be materially improved upon.
Internet fads come and go, but email remains neither in nor out of fashion, like the Levi 501s of digital communication. In fact, email is so ubiquitous that most other systems will send you email notifications until you figure out how to turn them off. There's an impressively narcissistic myopia in creating a proprietary communication system which sends its users an email to remind them to come check their messages.
Whether you're the sole proprietor of a small business or a cog in a multinational conglomerate, email is the way work gets done, both real work and busywork. The average office worker receives 120 emails a day, covering everything from critical customer issues to agenda updates for a meeting you weren’t invited to. I sent a bunch of emails, and now you're reading this article. You’ve probably even had a face-to-face conversation with somebody, and at the end of it they said “Send me an email.” Like it or not, email isn't going away, so you might as well get better at it. First, how do you deal with those 120 emails a day?
You may have heard of Inbox Zero. You may have even tried to implement it, and now some of your emails are lost in folders that made sense at the time, while everything else is in your inbox.
Inbox Zero is, by its own definition, a "rigorous approach to email management" wherein the goal is to maintain an empty inbox at all times. And by rigourous, they mean labour intensive. All email is supposed to be sorted or deleted immediately, which is an admirably futile attempt to manage busywork by creating a different kind of busywork.
This system has two obvious drawbacks: 1) sorting through all your old mail and 2) sorting through all your new mail. It also has a third, less obvious side-effect: emptying your inbox empties one of your best excuses.
It's perfectly understandable if something slips through the cracks when your inbox has hundreds of unread emails, less so when you have four. A well-ordered inbox shows that you have a lot of spare time to waste filing email. An inbox with thousands of unread emails shows that you're overworked and don't have time to even read everything, never mind sort it.
Inbox 3000: The Way of the Future
Inbox 3000 is the exact opposite: thousands of emails in your inbox, unsorted and unordered, but never lost. Where Inbox Zero requires incredible rigour, Inbox 3000 requires only an acceptance of what is. Email is a river with no beginning and no end, flowing ceaselessly toward some distant sea. Where Inbox Zero is an attempt to divert and contain this torrent in a collection of ponds and pools, Inbox 3000 merely involves floating on the surface of the river, dipping out what you want without trying to dam the flow. If you need to find something that already flowed off the bottom of your screen, you need only paddle downstream a ways and there it'll be.
Inbox 3000 is the system most people use without even knowing it. Like email itself, its simplicity and elegance makes it timeless. While anyone attempting to implement Inbox Zero is doomed to fall off the wagon occasionally (if not permanently), Inbox 3000 is the languid stream they inevitably fall into.
Don't waste your time trying to put every potentially important email in the correct folder, leave the river to its course and let your email's search function do the work. This is doubly true if you use Gmail. Google was a search engine before it was a company. No matter how well thought out your filing system and how consistently you adhere to it, you will never match the finding expertise of the most powerful search tool in the history of mankind.
|Inbox Zero||Inbox 3000|
|• complicated||• simple|
|• an unnatural attempt to impose order on the chaos of the universe||• so natural you're already doing it|
|• requires constant vigilance||• requires literally no effort|
|• outdated process of treating email like paper files||• sexy, modern|
|• only as efficient as your filing system makes it||• efficiency determined by the search technology, which is improving all the time|
Maintaining Inbox 3000
Inbox 3000 is defined not by what you do, but by what you don't do: don't sort it, don't worry about it, and above all don't delete it. Sure, you can clear out corporate spam and reply-all chains, but you should never delete real email. Email isn't just a communication tool, it's also a record of everything you’ve said and everything that’s been said to you.
When I worked in tech support, a manageable backlog was considered to be about 20-25 open tickets. Since we were understaffed, mine was usually above 30 and sometimes approached 40. I reached out to my boss, and he told me that if I was overloaded, I should email him a list of tickets that could be easily reassigned, along with a note about what needed to be done next on each one. So I spent about an hour going through all my tickets to compile the list and writing up next steps, and sent it off.
A week later my backlog was as high as it ever was, because nothing had been reassigned. My boss asked me why I was still overloaded. Since I hadn’t deleted anything I was able to forward him the email where he'd told me to contact him, as well as the one I’d sent listing all the tickets for him to reassign, which he had not read. Email is evidence, and you should take the same kind of care to preserve it as the police do. Think of it as defensive blackmail--better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.