Read: Inbox Zero vs. Inbox 5,000: a unified theory
In 2019, I suggest you let it all go. There is simply no way for anyone with a full-time job and multiple inboxes to keep up with the current email climate. Even after deleting and sorting my 2,700 unread messages, I awoke the next day to more than 400 more. The writer Emily Dreyfuss told me she has more than 300,000 unread messages in her inbox. After complaining about my email problem publicly on Facebook, friends in fashion, tech, corporate finance, law, advertising, and retail all bemoaned their multiple inboxes swelling with messages.
Some people still delude themselves into thinking they can manage their email. They adopt strange rituals: emailing first thing in the morning, never emailing in the morning, reading email but not responding to it, organizing everything into folders, emailing exclusively like a boss. Software fixes such as Gmail smart replies have made responding to email easier, but often a response just elicits more email.
“Part of the reason why we get so many emails is that we’ve all been told this story about how we need to respond quickly to be productive and meet expectations,” said John Zeratsky, an author and designer who worked in the tech industry for 15 years. “But if you respond quickly, you have a reputation for being responsive, people send you more messages, and it kind of feeds on itself.” Zeratsky said that he, too, once subscribed to the idea of Inbox Zero, before he realized it was burning him out.
All of these coping mechanisms are inferior to one simple solution: inbox infinity. Adopting inbox infinity means accepting the fact that there will be an endless, growing amount of email in your inbox every day, most of which you will never address or even see. It’s about letting email messages wash over you, responding to the ones you can, but ignoring most.
Deborah Arthurs, an editor in London, said that she used to subscribe to Inbox Zero, but has become much happier since embracing her 90,000+ email inbox. “For me, striving for Inbox Zero is like holding back the tides. It’s an exhausting exercise in futility that without the most stringent of housekeeping, I will never win,” she said. “I have heard so many times, ‘How hard is it to answer an email?’ But some people don’t realize that I physically couldn’t even open every email I receive, let alone answer each one.” Simply accepting that, she said, has made email much more manageable.
One critical step in the inbox-infinity method is to publicly admit that you have too much email to handle and be up front about not responding. You can start by messaging close contacts and family members, providing them with alternative ways to reach you. A friendly message to relatives might say, “Hi, I’m overwhelmed with email these days. I’d still love to hear from you, but if you want to reach me, I’d much prefer a call on the phone. My number is X.”