(Don’t Open this Email) Inbox Zero vs Inbox Infinity: How executives keep on top of their inbox in 2019

We’ve all felt the irrational fear of the first view of the inbox after a long flight, a weekend away, or even a night’s sleep. Electronic mail, the genius, revolutionary augmentation of “snail mail” has undoubtedly transformed the way we work and live. But in the 48 years since the first email was sent, the communications landscape has changed dramatically.

To give a sense of scale, in 2018, more than 280 billion emails were sent globally – each day. That number will grow to 306 billion a day by next year, and is predicted to continue to rise 4% annually. When you think about that, it’s hard to see how anything else gets done.

In the midst of new year’s resolution, January always seems to see the topic of a tidy inbox raise its head and this year has been no different. In recent weeks, debate has been raging between two polarised schools of thought: namely ‘Inbox Zero’ and ‘Inbox Infinity’.

Inbox Zero is a well-established concept, coined as far back as 2007 by tech blogger Merlin Mann. His theory, that one should end each day with a completely clear inbox to allow maximum time for focus on the creative work that matters, is one that has millions of zealous followers the world over. For many, it is an impossible aspiration. For others, a way of life.

However, this long-held supposed gold standard was challenged last month by Taylor Lorenz, a technology writer for The Atlantic, who published an article: Don’t Reply to Your Emails – The case for Inbox Infinity, which has sparked serious debate on how best to manage our digital lives.

Lorenz’s argument is that, in reality, there’s no way we can effectively respond to all of the messages we receive, nor place them neatly into piles to be filed, prioritized, responded to or ignored.

He argues that, if you respond to all emails quickly, you’re only encouraging people to send you more of them. Rather, Lorenz suggests the first step is to accept, and even publically admit, that this is a mountain that can’t be conquered. That you can’t possibly get to every email.

Lorenz acknowledges that Inbox Infinity can’t work for everyone – for example, client-facing companies like The MBS Group. Clients are unlikely to accept “sorry, but I subscribe to the concept of Inbox Infinity” as an excuse for missed deadlines. But that shouldn’t take away from the overarching theory that not all emails are born equal, and should be treated as such.

The impact of email addiction on a business

Email itself has a pervasive grip on the modern business, with senior executives across all sectors spending increasing amounts of time running their companies through their desk-bound computers. The argument for efficiency and an ability to spread complex messages in a targeted way is a clear and long-held one, but there is significant research to demonstrate negative aspects, with side effects all of us can relate to.

Back in 2012, Loughborough University published a study titled “Effects of Email Addiction and Interruptions on Employees”. In it, they highlight several studies which conclude that email has become an addiction for many, as well as being highly-disruptive to the work day and a barrier to concentrated, focused work execution.

A 2002 study calculated that 70 per cent of emails received to corporate inboxes were engaged with within six seconds of their arrival – faster than three rings of a telephone. The same paper calculated that it took, on average, 90 seconds to read and then “recover from” each email which, seventeen years ago, arrived on average every five minutes. This equated to around 64 interruptions per employee per day.

Fast forward to today, and we find ourselves working across multiple devices, email accounts, social media channels and news feeds. Lack of focus and execution are to be expected, with potentially serious costs to a business.

The typical executive’s inbox

The demands on the inboxes of senior executives are impossibly large, with C-suite execs receiving between 400 and 800 emails every day, on top of what is usually a back-to-back schedule of meetings, calls and travel. There is no shortage of articles on how the most successful CEOs deal with emails, from Jeff Bezos’s: ‘Jeff tells everyone that if you email him, you’ll get an answer within 10 minutes, or never,’ to Google’s Executive Chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt’s use of his ‘O.H.I.O’ (Only Hold It Once) and ‘L.I.F.O’ (Last In, First Out) system.

At The MBS Group, in our daily interactions with global executives, we frequently see auto-reply messages that stipulate the two or three times per day a CEO will check their inboxes, requests to phone rather than email and triaged lists of alternate numbers to call for a more instant reply. It just makes sense.

LinkedIn CEO, Jeff Weiner
LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner suggests 7 steps for effectively managing your email

Perhaps the most lauded strategy belongs to LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, who composed his ‘Seven Laws of Email’. To my mind, Weiner’s first and final points resonate most clearly: ‘To get less email, send less email’ and ‘Controversial conversations belong in person, not email’.

Regardless of whether you are a follower of the cult of Inbox Zero, Inbox Infinity or, as is most likely, somewhere in between, if you as a senior executive are to successfully navigate the torrent of communications landing in your inboxes, streams, feeds and schedules, something has to give.

Short of arbitrarily deleting anything that has been overlooked for a random period of time or allowing your inbox to be flooded with a tidal wave of messages you have no intention of acknowledging, perhaps the simplest, most impactful approach is to step away from the keyboard, walk the floor and encourage your peers to do the same.