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.

Good Riddance, 2016!

Perhaps the ultimate slap-in-the-face parting gift 2016 bequeaths to us is the addition of a leap second. Yes, 2016 will be one second longer. Enjoy it. Enjoy a brief moment longer of a year decried by many in social media as a genuine annus horribilis.

From my point of view, 2016 was a “meh” year. Unremarkable on many fronts, but not awful. I’ll review the timeline, then dive into a few reflections before wrapping up with a few public new-year resolutions.

Year in Review

The TL;DR version is: busy but manageable. Out-of-state travel is indicated in bold, below; I was out of The Mitten at least once in nine of 12 months of the year. And yes, in January and August I traveled to Chicago twice that month.


  • Chicago, IL — NAHQ board of directors meeting
  • Chicago, IL — NAHQ Recognition of the Profession commission meeting
  • Get Published! 2016 — writing-conference panelist


  • Wisconsin Dells, WI — speaker at Wisconsin Association for Healthcare Quality conference


  • Actually, not much of significance happened in March.


  • Louisville, KY — Vice Lounge Online fifth-anniversary trip
  • Chicago, IL — NAHQ commission-coordination meetings



  • Annapolis, MD — speaker at the Maryland Association for Healthcare Quality conference
  • “Bat in the bedroom” incident
  • Ann Arbor Book Festival


  • Atlanta, GA — NAHQ commission-coordination meetings
  • Kayaking on the Flat River


  • Chicago, IL — Joint Statistical Meetings
  • Chicago, IL — NAHQ board of directors meeting
  • Team transitions at Priority Health


  • 40th birthday
  • Kerrytown Book Festival
  • Michigan Association for Healthcare Quality conference


  • Las Vegas, NV — Vegas Internet Mafia Family Picnic
  • Hammond, IN — Casino trip with Tony
  • Corey+Nicole wedding
  • Grand tour of Kalamazoo indie bookstores
  • Joined board of directors at the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters
  • “A Moment of Clarity” (non-fiction essay) contracted through Wipf+Stock
  • Brewed Awakenings 2 and Grayson Rising released at Caffeinated Press


  • Stood for election (unsuccessfully) for Kent County Commission, 17th district
  • National Novel Writing Month — didn’t hit 50k but did learn new skills about complex plotting
  • Began a contract-editing gig for


  • Orlando, FL — NAHQ board of directors meeting; Disney Institute tour
  • Re-elected as chairman of the board at the annual shareholders’ meeting of Caffeinated Press
  • My boss at Priority Health transitions to new role; I now report to our VP
  • Launched new writing group — the Grand River Writing Tribe
  • Two weeks’ vacation


On the Balancing of Work versus Accessibility.

On Jan. 2, 2016, I wrote about a year of refusal. The short version was that I had grown weary of people expecting me to what they wanted, when they wanted it; at the time I wrote that post, I was over-extended, and the pressure of other people’s expectations — particularly about turnaround times on email responses — took a real toll on my mental and emotional health. No one likes getting yelled at by acquaintances, regardless of whether the complaint is justified or not.

Over 2016, I succeeded in learning how to stop feeling guilty about being busy and therefore having to make tough choices about what I do and on what timeline. My new attitude isn’t one of, “Screw you.” Rather, it’s a recognition that I have constraints and that I can’t be all things to all people, so therefore I must let go of the emotional baggage that makes me feel bad when I can’t give others what they want, when they want it.

The problem consistently distills to timeliness-of-response to messages. I have three main email accounts (Priority Health, Caffeinated Press, and my personal address) plus seven other less-trafficked accounts. In an average week, I’ll receive roughly 1,500 emails across all accounts, not including spam. Of those 1,500 legitimate messages, disposition falls into thirds: One-third are list emails I can read or delete without acting on them; one-third are CC/BCC notes from my teams that I need to review but rarely need to act upon; one-third are messages that require me to do something. Put in different terms, I have to respond to nearly 70 emails a day, every day, without fail, if I’m to keep up. I’ve timed this, actually (hey, I’m a quality-improvement professional). Turns out, I can keep up if I dedicate three full hours every day to email, recognizing that some messages might be brief kick-the-can-down-the-road one-liners, while others can take 30 minutes or more to craft a complete response.

The biggest point in all of this, I think, is that “responding to people” can take a significant slice of time that’s not spent on doing other value-added activities — in I.T. terms, it’s prioritizing maintenance over development. The fact that twice in 2016 I took a vacation day from Priority Health purely to get caught up on email says something. Add to the mix the extra overhead of multiple follow-ups and people trying other ways to get my attention (most irritatingly, through texting and Facebook), and the pile just grows deeper.

Of course, there are brief periods when I’m relatively current. Three times (if I remember correctly) in 2016 I had attained “inbox zero” across all email accounts. But whoa, was that a lot of work. It’s more often the case that I will read a message within the first three to five days after receipt, and respond to it usually in about six weeks or so unless it’s a fire drill from my boss or a quick reply to a close colleague. But it’s not unusual that if I have to do something that takes a while before I can respond, answers could wait for three months or longer.

Some folks prioritize “keeping up with communication” above all else. I’ve tried that, myself. Discovered that I can’t get nearly as much done — in fact, one reason that Brewed Awakenings 2 was so delayed this year was that I put ops/admin stuff at Caffeinated Press above editorial work in the first half of 2016. The net result? I managed to stay on top of routine things like messages (more or less) and blog posts and keeping-the-lights-on business activities, but my productivity as an editor was effectively nil.

So lately I’ve deliberately de-prioritized communication so that I can focus on value-added behaviors. I find that very many messages that “need a response” actually don’t need a response if you let them age long enough.

Cynical? Maybe. The point isn’t that other people aren’t worth my time, or that I’m more important than the people who are reaching out to me. I fully recognize and respect that people who message me, in general, deserve as timely of a response as I can manage. It’s not that I don’t care. The real problem is triage. I’m typically putting in 80- or 90-hour weeks, every week, across all my areas of accountability (Priority Health, Caffeinated Press, GLCL, Vice Lounge Online, freelance editing, NAHQ, etc.) and at some point, I have to make tough choices about what to do and when to do it.

That said, you learn a lot about people, particularly business contacts, by how they react to gaps in communication. Most people, when you tell them that responses can take a while, just roll with it. Others start to get panicky (“Oh, sorry for stalking you on Facebook but I was afraid you forgot about me!”) while a few people — fortunately for me, not many — get passive-aggressive, sending emotionally manipulative screeds intended to provoke a response.

My colleague John and I will sometimes disagree about how to handle the passive-aggressive types. He’s in favor of “taking the high road.” I’m in favor of not responding to manipulative behaviors and to confronting them directly when they arise. I see the virtue in his approach, but I do hate letting bullies win simply to avoid an argument.

I continue to try to streamline what I do and how I do it so I can be more responsive to messages, but with the amount of stuff on my plate, it’s a challenge sometimes. No bones about it. But it’s nothing personal, either. And I don’t feel guilty about it.

On the Foibles of Publishing for the Love of It.

I very much enjoy my time at Caffeinated Press. I love our literary journal, The 3288 Review. I enjoy meeting authors and working with our editorial team and helping to grow a literary community.

That said, publishing is a high-cost, low-margin business. The board members continue to pay for the company’s monthly expenses out-of-pocket. Plenty of folks want to work with us — but only if they get paid to do it. Part of the “being busy” part referenced above includes all the sundry activities we must do to market the company and to ensure that we get enough ancillary revenue to defray the costs of doing business. I don’t regret being CEO, but I do sometimes lament that operations overtakes editorial in terms of the most pressing need of the day.

To my astonishment, the literary community of the greater Grand Rapids area is effectively non-existent, which makes running the business a degree more difficult. The GLCL struggles to make inroads. So do we. Very insular. Very few indie bookstores in the metro area; fewer still accept new books. The literary community is fractured into tribes — the religious publishers, the “high literary” writers, the slam poets, the NaNoWriMo group, the Lakeshore, the university scenes — and these tribes have virtually no intersection or cross-pollination. The libraries are “meh” about supporting the literary arts, and the emphasis in Grand Rapids on “art” is really about visual art. It’s not an accident that literary talent isn’t showcased in ArtPrize or on the Avenue of the Arts.

In fact, I can’t even get friends and family or the people who pitch us submissions to buy our products. Seriously.

So we struggle. But — opportunity awaits. No one has really tapped the market yet in a coherent way. Perhaps an event like a “Beer City Book Con” will make a difference. Stay tuned.

On the Dialectic of Habit.

An observation: A habit, once formed, inculcates itself into the fabric of one’s life, pushing against other habits until several habits stand in conflict. In true Hegelian fashion, the thesis of Habit A and the antithesis of Habit B yield a middle-ish ground in the form of Behavior C. Even if Behavior C wasn’t necessarily expected or desired. And eventually Behavior C is confronted by Habit D, etc.

I notice this tendency in myself. I see an opportunity for improvement, I focus on it, I succeed. But that success affects other things in unplanned ways.

For example, for years I obsessively followed a particular Internet news/discussion forum, dedicating perhaps four of five Friday nights to binge-consuming the forum’s content and engaging with other users. It was a habit. Simultaneously, I had a different habit of spending at least one or two nights per week completing a 30-, 45- or 60-minute cycle on my exercise bike. Then, that forum started having hosting problems, and then it went away completely for a few months. So that Friday-night habit went away. I replaced it with the habit of reading news through RSS on my tablet, accompanied with a cigar and a cocktail. But the “Friday night forum” and the “RSS news reader” weren’t a one-to-one substitution — for starters, the number of RSS feeds I followed grew to be much larger than the content on the forum. So the news-consumption habit changed. But because there was so much news to read, the habit spread beyond Friday, until I stopped using the exercise bike altogether. So no cardio, plus cocktails and cigars. Not a great combo. But not a solution I would have architected de novo, either.

The moral of the story? That as we go into the new year with fresh resolutions, we cannot forget that our lives are not a series of task lists to be executed in parallel. Rather, we live messy lives with the warp and weft of different strings of habit weaving themselves continuously into a tapestry that, if poorly planned, will hang crookedly from the wall of your mausoleum. If you resolve to “lose 50 pounds,” you’re not just talking about one set of isolated behaviors. Rather, you’re touching on many different behavior patterns — and the effect of unplanned finagling doesn’t always turn out well.

Which brings me to ….


Every year since 2009, I’ve revisited a document I call the “Roadmap” that lays out, in broad form, my meaning-of-life reflections as well as a series of goals, targeted by season. I update it every year on Christmas Day and Independence Day. When I tweaked it last week, I removed my seasonal-goals list and substituted instead a series of focus areas by month, augmented by a “daily discipline” section templating a paradigmatic week.

Not all of my resolutions/goals are worth sharing, but a few are. I consider you, dear readers, to be accountability partners for me.

Here we go:

  1. Arrive at age 41 at roughly the same physical shape as I was at age 31. But, incorporate more significant strength training beginning in late spring. For single dudes of a certain age (lookin’ at you, mirror), the “muscle daddy” body design seems to be universally popular. Plus, health.
  2. Finish the book proposal for From Pencil to Print (a non-fic writers’ manual) and send it to at least one agent for review.
  3. Write the novel that’s been peeking through the gaps in my last few NaNoWriMo experiences.
  4. Finish and then release my poetry chapbook, Whiskey, Cats & Poems.
  5. Become a registered parliamentarian. (Why? Well, why not?)
  6. Learn more Python — to the point of standing up a Bokeh server and hosting data-viz solutions.
  7. Do at least one of each: Hiking trip, diving trip, kayaking trip. Somewhere around the Upper Midwest. Weekend excursions, nothing crazy.
  8. Do the Tony Snyder 40th Birthday of Power in The Happiest Place on Earth (Las Vegas).
  9. Earn “advanced open water” diver certification and upgrade to “general” class radio license.
  10. Complete a Wilderness First Responder course.
  11. Go skydiving.
  12. Return to the karate dojo this summer.

OK, folks — I’ve nattered on long enough. Let me wrap up by wishing each of you a safe, happy, healthy and prosperous 2017.