On the Morality of InBox Zero



The other day on my Facebook feed, I had at least three friends notify the world that they had achieved ‘inbox zero’. Bemused by this, I posted casually:

‘Someone today mentioned they achieved inbox zero. Upon checking, I realized my inbox goes back only to last February, and contains 7,898 messages, 911 unread. Please tell me there is somebody out there who can relate?’

It led to a very long thread, and then this blog response by my friend and colleague, Danny Zacharias*.

A few who commented indeed could relate to my situation.

But what surprised me most was the number of people who responded to my comment with advice on how to achieve inbox zero. As if I ought to achieve inbox zero. As though it is better to achieve inbox zero. As though I, at 50 years of age, and with extensive experience of organizational training and leadership, had no idea of how to achieve inbox zero.

I realized then, that for some people, inbox zero represents some level of moral achievement, which they assume produces or represents a better state of affairs than inbox 7000. For my part, I think it represents merely a different state of affairs, not a preferable one. So long as I am offering a reasonably quick reply to my messages, and not losing important threads, why does it matter whether my inbox is zero or otherwise? It’s simply a preference for working one way as opposed to another. After all, you can simply shift all of your inbox into a file without ever answering a single one of them. Inbox zero! Yay me! Few would argue against the moral inferiority of this inbox zero status under these circumstances.

In fact, achieving inbox zero is the moral equivalent of shelving some books, rather than leaving them on your desk. (It is interesting to note, however, that those who are inbox 7000 rarely proclaim this on social media, or suggest to others how such a situation might be achieved.)

So we cannot really argue that achieving inbox zero is a moral action, providing a better ethical outcome than maintaining a large inbox. Perhaps we should not expect that others should achieve productivity by the same pathway as ourselves.

Unless, of course, achieving inbox zero is a practically preferable state of affairs. This, I think is a matter of organizational style; again, a matter of preference rather than preferability. I refer again to the stack of books on the desk. Some prefer to remove one book from the shelf, use it, and reshelve. Others prefer to have all of the books for their current project on the desk at once. Is one better than another? Only in accordance with individual preference.

There are academics who argue that for productivity, it is better to have your books out, and your papers all around in stacks on the floor so you can reference them quickly rather than needing to scrabble around for them in a file or on a shelf (Alister McGrath is one very productive scholar I have heard argue for this. My own normally very tidy theological mentor also worked this way and his productivity was the envy of many.)

To be honest, because I do not regularly delete emails, I have saved huge amounts of time in meetings, been able to cut short false claims against colleagues, and recovered a nearly entire corpus of my correspondence with my theological mentor over twenty years when he died. This has, and continues to be, a great source of comfort and wisdom to me.

And so, I argue that for some of us, maintaining a large inbox is not a hindrance to productivity, nor does it represent a state of moral inferiority. Sometimes, we are simply looking to be understood, and not fixed. So now I’m off to post that today, I am inbox 1799. It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just 1799.


[PS Of course the morality of the demands of the inbox is a matter for moral reflection, but for another day. ]

*Danny – this is posted rather tongue-in-cheek. I value you highly as a friend and colleague, and hope that you – and our friends, colleagues and students -enjoy this banter.


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