Inbox Zero Is Killing Written Communication

Inbox zero. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you love it. Personally, I hate it. I think it’s contributing to the downfall of modern civilization. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch. But it’s making us bad writers at a time when—distracted by screens and notifications—we don’t need any help with that. And if a decline in written communication skills isn’t at least a part of the downfall of modern civilization, I don’t know what is.

For those blissfully ignorant, defines inbox zero as “a rigorous approach to email management aimed at keeping the inbox empty—or almost empty—at all times.” Perhaps you’ve seen a friend online throw virtual confetti in celebration of reaching this illustrious goal. Or perhaps you’ve given a slow Friday in service of inbox zero. Regardless, as you’ve gathered by now, I’m not a fan.

To be clear, I’m not just being a contrarian. My disgust with inbox zero is founded in two very real concerns. Both are rooted in time management. Let’s take a look at each.

Chasing a Productivity Lie

Most striving for inbox zero are chasing dreams of enhanced productivity. We want to get through all of the emails in our inbox. We do this because, with each email read, answered, and filed, we’ve accomplished something. We can check it off our list. Take care of several emails—like a whole inbox full of them—and you get to check tons of items off of that list. Check, check, check. You are a productivity god! 

The problem? This system is entirely based on a lie that shakes the entire Jenga-tower of logic when you pull on it. Inbox zero assumes that your email inbox is the same thing as your to-do list. Facing down this assumption, most realize that the email inbox is many things (a horrifying, spam-laden mess) but representative of our actual to-do list for work it is not.

It’s easy to slip into this cognitive trap. With email constantly running in the background and dinging with each new entry, we get a parallel rush on the front end as new information arrives. Information that we can soon read, answer, file, and erroneously credit ourselves for dealing with.

Your email inbox is far from a path to personal productivity. In fact, email is really a delivery system for other peoples’ priorities. As author and motivational speaker John Michael Morgan says of mistakenly prioritizing email, “Your urgency is not my emergency.” In fact, as I write this now, I’m distracted by emails popping up in the background. I want to smack them down like a whack-a-mole game but even that gives them more attention than they deserve. Especially during the critical task of writing.

Spending Writing Time the Right Way

To be clear, email is important. Especially in business communication. It’s estimated that 80% of business communication happens via email. According to the WOBS Writing Survey, we spend an average of nine hours each week reading email. The survey goes on to note that we spend another six hours each week writing email. That adds up to two full days of work committed to email. And study after study indicates that most still prefer email for “important business communication” even as new chat and messenger services emerge.

We’re writing a lot of email but because we live in a “first-draft” culture, most of it’s poorly written and quickly sent. Inbox zero doesn’t help with this. Scan the email request quickly, dash off a response, hit send, cross another item off of that fake to-do list. Repeat ad infinitum. We’re writing too much, too fast.

What can we do to fix this? For starters, we can change how we think about the time we spend writing. As you read this angry scree about writing emails with care, it’s natural to think, “This is going to take even more time! Time I don’t have!” Or, “Striving for inbox zero may not be perfect but it’s fast.”

But what this logic fails to take into account are all of the additional time sucks of bad writing. When you rapid-tap an email message—often littered with typos, illogical sequencing, and a main idea buried somewhere a few paragraphs deep—you create confusion on the part of your reader. Confusion which typically yields a reply of, “Sorry. Could you clarify?” Or, “Ummm … what is it you want me to do?” And, if there are several people on your email thread, this miscommunication is magnified.

When we write too fast and use the “need for speed” as our justification we forget about the time corrective communication takes. Take more time writing on the front end to ensure you’ll spend less time clarifying later. It costs you time to save your audience time. And if you’re sending an email to a superior or a new customer or client, time spent up front making the right impression is time well spent.

The lie we tell ourselves at the center of all of this seems to be, “I don’t have time to write better.” That’s a tough pill to swallow. And it should be. You should take time to proofread and edit even your most basic email communications. It doesn’t matter what your job is, how busy you are, or how high up on the food chain you are. Everyone has time to focus a little bit harder on saying it right the first time.

If you can’t do that, you’ve got bigger problems than how much email is in your inbox.