The myth of Inbox Zero and the path to peace of mind

Over the past year-and-a-half while developing Handle, our entire company was in a race to zero. Inbox zero, to be precise. We set out to create a product that would allow us to leave work with zero emails in our inboxes and, so the thinking went, would lead to lives of zero stress (or at least until the next morning). We wanted to go home for dinner with friends and families and be fully present, in both body and mind. Wouldn’t that be amazing, transformative – invaluable, even?

Yes. So would alchemy, but neither exist. Inbox Zero, we discovered, is a mirage. My team and I learned a lot in the process about what contributes to real productivity gains. They informed our decisions about product design but they aren’t tied to any specific technology choice: We think these insights apply universally.

Inbox Zero: The myth

You could always open your email client, select all, hit delete and, in theory at least, experience a moment of peace. Inevitably though it would be followed by panic, because you know there were important things in that pile you just vaporized: all those opportunities, responsibilities, duties and interactions in your work and personal life now left unresolved.

The alternative, which most of us struggle with every day, is keeping up with an inbox in a uniform, disciplined way. Yes, you can take an opportunity out of your inbox or your brain and write it down (as David Allen suggests), but the real problem is that, so long as opportunities exist or work is in progress, your backlog of to-dos will always be greater than zero, no matter how you track them, define them, or how quickly you complete them. Your subconscious is always keenly aware of it. Even with delegation, you can pass a hot potato to someone else to move it forward, but it always comes back, often hotter the second time around.

Peace of mind

The first step in achieving peace of mind is facing — and accepting — the fact that we will never be “done.” Our perfect inboxes are fleeting. Our task lists will never be empty. The Twittersphere will keep fluttering. And that’s a good thing, believe it or not. If you admit and surrender, you can embrace the world as your oyster. Suddenly, you’ve entered a place of endless possibility for learning and doing.

How, then, does one find peace? Here are three things that we learned in our journey.

Know what you MUST do

Not what you should do, or want to do, or what someone else wants you to do, but what you MUST do to be able to live with yourself, according to your own goals and ambitions and higher purpose. That may involve keeping your job. It may not. It may involve helping a friend, or doing a stranger a favor. Each moment is a value judgment, and only yours to make.

In that moment, seek clarity. We’ve found through both empirical and anecdotal research that identifying MUSTs and organizing around them is the ultimate secret to most successes.

Make sure the list is complete.

We’ve learned that incompleteness is what hurts people’s productivity most. It’s about more than just missing a deadline, however. Not having MUSTs captured in a trusted system leads to difficulty focusing on tasks at hand. Our subconscious interrupts and forces a context switch.

So if there’s paper in folders, voicemails, texts, meeting notes, scribbles on stickies, etc. that represent a MUST, you MUST go find them. Granted, there will always be surprises, even some that you MUST deal with. But incompleteness is nothing more than human error – your error – and is completely avoidable.

Make a plan.

In our company book club, we came across an interesting explanation for the subconscious interruption called the Zeigarnik effect. The gist is that when an objective is incomplete and no plan is in place, the mind interrupts itself with intrusive thoughts until the situation is remedied.

MUSTs take blocks of time and heavy mental energy – they won’t fit into small gaps in between emails. So placing MUSTs in the context of time helps focus, and more importantly, makes sure those MUSTs actually get done. (But don’t go too far out; over-scheduling tasks has risks too. Commitments with ourselves are the easiest to break, after all.) The key seems to lie in these steps: scripting just today where visibility is best, leaving standing whitespace in your calendar most days, and having a complete accompanying list that gets consistent review and prioritization.

With your MUSTs done, booked, and queued up for review, your mental space is freed to focus on the payoff. More days can be good, even great. Temptations still strike during booked MUST windows and we, too, often succumb. It is a journey for us and for us all, but one we’re making progress on by the week.

Shawn is co-founder and CEO of Handle, a priority engine for making people more effective, and runner-up TC Disrupt NY 2013. He is also Managing Director at Menlo Ventures, where he led the first investment in Siri, and currently sits on the Boards of IMVU, PlayPhone, Roku, Telenav and YuMe. 

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