From Inbox Zero to Inbox Infinity? Or, Why I Learned to Stop Stressing About My Unread Message Count

The last three days have been focused, to remarkable degree, on communicating. Mostly catch-up stuff. Monday and Tuesday were spent, 10 hours each day, just responding to accumulated messages. Whilst munching dinner yesterday, I came across an interesting article in The Atlantic by Taylor Lorenz titled “Don’t Reply to Your Emails: The Case for Inbox Infinity” that triggered some introspection about all of this effort.
Lorenz’s argument, in essence, is that one ought not waste the time trying to keep abreast on communication because it’s a never-ending fight that offers relatively little return on investment. In fact, responsiveness invites additional unnecessary correspondence that adds to the load, in a never-ending spiral of slavery to inboxes and social dashboards. The more responsive you are, the more people send to you, thus the more you have to deal with. Thus, choosing to not read and respond to messages is a healthy life choice and a savvy business strategy: Embrace Inbox Infinity.
I get it. But the Midwestern Nice guy in me thinks that a one-sided screw-you policy borders on the sociopathic.
So I crunched some numbers:

  • On any given day, I receive anywhere from 300 to 500 emails. Of those, about one-third are personalized-yet-unsolicited messages that don’t get caught by spam filters, one-third are notifications of some sort that I inspect and then (usually) delete, and one-third incur some sort of response — a reply, a forward, a follow-up task. So I must engage in some way with anywhere between 100 and 150 emails daily. And that’s across four actively trafficked email accounts and an additional five lightly trafficked ones. I’ve occasionally kept an Inbox Zero-like state for a week or two. Consistently, I need to spend 90 minutes per day in Outlook to make that happen, and just for email.
  • On average, I receive roughly 100 social notifications each day, across Facebook (personal), Facebook Messenger, six Facebook Pages I administer, two Facebook Groups I administer, eight Twitter accounts I singly or jointly own, my personal LinkedIn account, two LinkedIn company accounts I administer, my Instagram account, two Instagram company accounts, and one mostly dormant Tumblr account.
  • I receive between zero and 50 text messages per day.
  • For Caffeinated Press, Write616, and Vice Lounge Online, we’ve deployed a ticketing system, so those websites incur additional messages (between zero and a dozen, each day) that almost always require non-trivial follow-up. Some of the CafPress tickets are editorial queries, which on average take 15 minutes each to resolve for the easy ones and 30 minutes for the hard ones. In addition, both CafPress and Write616 provide community forums that include segments with more-or-less active communication. For the CafPress forums alone, over 2018, I lodged more than 300 new messages. And probably 12 of the last 20 hours I’ve spent cleaning up comms has occurred in the CafPress ticketing system, where I’ve personally touched or closed roughly 120 tickets over the last three solar cycles.
  • For Caffeinated Press, Write616 and Gillikin & Associates, all of which use the Zoho One platform, we use Zoho Projects, and most project-related correspondence happens in the context of per-project forums or discussion threads.
  • Some of the editorial consulting work I do relies on a private Slack channel — not high traffic, though, which is good.
  • Telephony? I can be reached (“reached,” he jokes) over 10 different possible phone numbers associated with three physical telephones and five voicemail boxes.

In other words, I get a ton of correspondence stretching over nine email accounts, five social platforms, five voicemail boxes, three ticketing systems, three project-management platforms, two community forums, a slack channel and iMessages. And a partridge in a pear tree.
I understand that I’m an unusual use case. I lead two small businesses, run a freelance editorial gig off the side of my desk, co-host a long-running podcast with a vibrant listener base, volunteer on a non-profit working board and have my own hobbies and personal writing endeavors. And believe me, I’m not complaining. I’ve made my choices and even though I’m scheduled (really) from 7a to 11:30p Sunday through Saturday, I’m doing what I want to do, and I own the trade-offs I’ve incurred to split my time in so many diverse ways. “Living your best life,” or whatever the kids these days hashtag.
So, even though I’m inundated with communication, it’s not like I’m a victim of it. Yet to keep abreast of everything and to be highly responsive in the short term, across all communications channels, I’d have to dedicate 2.5 to 3.5 hours, 7 days a week, to do nothing but communicate. Not to work. Just to communicate. Assuming that the prompt engagment wouldn’t generate additional engagement that opens that window even wider.
So in most cases, I elect to not spend that much time managing communications, and instead pursue work that can lead to better financial outcomes for me and for the initiatives I support. There’s always a balance, of course, and I don’t always get that balance perfect, but if given the chance to do something of value, or to talk about doing something of value, I’ll prefer the former to the latter.
And that’s the rub.
I think people who have invested their time differently — e.g., folks who work one day job and reserve evenings and weekends for friends, family and a hobby or two — mosey up to the communications table with a very different set of expectations. When they send emails, they expect responses within a day or two. When they leave a voicemail, they expect a call back. When they reach out on social media, they expect acknowledgement. For them, timely reciprocal engagement is a default framework for viewing interpersonal communications.
Which, you know, ain’t exactly unreasonable.
Yet it’s not terribly unusual for me to incur read-and-respond lags of 90 days or more. Some of my pending tickets are nine months old. None of this delay is a function of me hating the sender or deciding that my needs are more important or not caring a whit about others’ good-faith reach-outs. It’s a function of being swamped. Having decided that 2.5 to 3.5 hours every day managing inboxes and dashboards isn’t in the cards, then every day I fail to keep up accumulates a debt that swells and swells and swells, interest compounding relentlessly until eventually — and I do this two or three times per year — I take a day or two off, decamp to coffee shops, and do nothing but play communication catch-up, triaging what I can, deleting what I can’t, and moving forward as best as I can.
So what’s the solution? How does one bridge the gap deep cultural gap between timely reciprocal engagement and inbox infinity?
Some attentive blog readers may have picked up, over the last year or so, on this theme of me writing about the tyranny of the inbox. I went astray, I think, in originally trying to be omnicompetent. So I set expectations that, as they slipped, didn’t help. I recognize that others have legitimate needs to which I should respond, so I’ve been working hard over the last year to erect a bridge that crosses that gap while minimizing (never, alas, eliminating) the attendant friction for both sides. In some ways, it’s like learning a different language or navigating a foreign culture.
I think — I hope! — I’m making some progress, though:

  1. I’m focusing more and more on getting people out of my email inbox. The use of ticketing systems and project-management tools means that others can swoop in as needed. (I’m still working on getting the “others” to actually swoop in, which is a conversation for a different day.) It’s easier for me to schedule time to view a project’s notification history or a ticket queue than to pick apart disparate emails amidst a sea of email noise and then magically plot the projects in my head.
  2. I’ve been much more aggressive lately in telling new-to-me people that (a) I don’t do status reports, and (b) expect long delays in routine correspondence. Most people understand and offer the attendant grace. A few people don’t seem to believe me when I tell them as much, so I’m continuing to refine the message so that expectations are set up-front.
  3. I’m going to start being more aggressive in redirecting communication to the right channel. For example, I cannot conduct business conversations on my personal social-media channels. Not because I’m trying to be a dick about it, but because Facebook and Twitter aren’t part of a task-based, discoverable workflow.
  4. I’m committing in 2019 to hold more frequent and available open office hours. If something is so important that it requires immediate attention, the door is open to an in-person conversation. If it’s not important enough for a direct chat, then the priority clarifies itself.
  5. I’ll continue to ignore the bullies who hector, cajole, demean and dismiss in their escalating attempts to get attention. This phenomenon happens more often than it ought with authors, who (despite early level-setting) nevertheless have persuaded themselves that I’m at their beck-and-call then become angry when their beck isn’t called. I will never justify myself or give in to digital bullies. Ever.
  6. I accept that some things that might warrant a response, in the abstract, don’t rise to a return-on-investment level in the real world. Therefore, I won’t beat myself up if I can’t attend to everything.

I used to get stressed about falling behind on communications. (I don’t talk about my mental health on my blog, but if people understood what havoc Caffeinated Press hath wrought, emotionally —.) I don’t stress anymore. I suppose I’ve embraced the Serenity Prayer. Part of the “doing many things” lifestyle is that I accept that not everything that should be done, can be done. At least, not by one person. And scaling back — to only do those things where you can guarantee you can get 100 percent done on a highly predictable schedule — presents its own set of risks, mostly financial; the more tongs you pull out of the fire, the more dependent you are on just a few investments, and if any of those dwindling investments dry up, the result is catastrophic.
I’ll admit, though. For a while, I really did toy with saying, “Damn the torpedoes! Full Inbox Infinity ahead!” But I just couldn’t. I might not be perfect, but I do try to not be an asshole.
Yet as I continue to stumble on, doing the best I can, I’ll at least take some solace in not feeling as bad about myself as I used to.

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