The Inbox-Zero Fallacy

On my flight to the Belgium Testing Days I noticed a pattern regarding answering and handling emails. I think there is a vicious cycle between two groups of people dealing with emails.

Thus far, I observed two kinds of behaviors when answering emails. First there are people like the one sitting in front of my row on the plane to Brussels. They take their laptop with them, open them while on the plane, move email from here to there, putting them in different folders, organizing them in thoughtful ways, in order to have everything in its place.

Then there are the guys who are like me. When they get an email, and recognize it, they work at it straight away, hitting the reply button, writing back a quick statement, sending the mail back. Or, if there is no further use, they read it, and forget about it. Sometimes I wonder whether my motivation to directly answer an email is to get the ball back to the person who sent me something – sometimes, but not often.

I don’t have problems with too many unread emails. Though, consider what happens, when I finally get a reply from one of the “move mails in folders”. I open it, read it, hit reply, write whatever comes to mind, send it back. Now, that guy might be trying to reach an Inbox-Zero state quickly working back the 20 mails from me. As he does this, he gets replies in between – often times faster than he can answer. Maybe in the end he gives up.

Do you see the problem? Well, I don’t have a problem from my perspective. But while watching the guy moving mails around on the plane, not sure what to do about them, re-opening the mail and the attachment, that guy looked poor to me. In the end I was considering whether he had a conversation with someone like me.

Of course, this is a self-reinforcing system as you might have noticed by now. But I don’t have the problem, besides I got some longer waiting times from time to time. But who should solve the problem? Well, I think I can contribute to the solution by not answering every email as quickly as I can, and leaving the other people around me some room to breathe, and eventually end up with an Inbox of zero – but let’s see.

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3 thoughts on “The Inbox-Zero Fallacy”

  1. My question is why people have so much difficulty deciding on what to do with an email or the attachments therein. What I see very often is that a situation is explained in detail in an email an I get a reply asking for details that are exactly in the mail that I sent before. Makes two unecessary mails. Same with mixing topics in an email. I normally move mails I’ve processed into a folder belonging to the project. If a colleague decides to ask me something on the side I personally reply with two emails to get things sorted when I get another reply but this way email numbers rise.

    People just need to get readucated on how emails are supposed to be used. And from experience I can say that there are companies who exactly do that – already did it seven years ago.


    1. Hi Markus,

      indeed, I wrote an article in 2000 while in university about the emerging ways for communication, and some of the problems that might come up due to the nature of direct vs. not-so-direct feedback. Some time has passed since then, but email is a medium that some people don’t know how to use efficiently, and rules can help overcome this state.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. LOL :)
    I think inbox zero is funny. Maybe its because I dont get that many emails … but I dont struggle with it at all. Much like you – I will respond fairly quickly to incoming emails, with short, to the point answers.
    I think twitter has improved my email response time – all that practicing with 140 char ;)

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