Inbox zero is a lie you tell yourself by@sirrendipity

Inbox zero is a lie you tell yourself

Florian Schmidt Hacker Noon profile picture

Florian Schmidt

(Ir)rational Flaneur, increasing my luck surface area, learning how little I know, thinking long term. Rêve on!


Ever complaint about too many emails? I think so. Not only because you clicked on this article, but I know of it being a common problem. So so often I hear my acquaintances or clients, saying “I have to do my emails!” or “I spend hours just to get ahead of things.”

It´s worse after holidays.



I have good news for you. And bad news.

  • Good news: You can change that
  • Bad news: You yourself have to change that

You might think now, well, that´s a big say of him. He does not know about MY situation! I am so busy! I have so many emails! I have to deal with so many things! I am so important! I have to take care of everything!

But are you? Do you have to? I mean, really?

I don´t think so. That´s what I am going to show you in this article. Also, I have an additional bonus pro tipp at the end of my article.

The stories we tell ourselves

We, as humans consist of stories. Every group we interact with tells itself stories to keep them alive. Only therefore companies, money, states exist. I wrote about that by analyzing soccer clubs, which are also just stories. See here.



You tell yourself stories. I myself, tell me that I am not good in playing soccer (which I am really not), that I am not good in math (working on it) and many other things.

When you tell yourself stories you believe in these. But you can change these stories.

I changed my “I am not a morning person” into waking up at five or six am — by myself without alarm (to be honest, this is rather new). I changed “Cold showers are totally unbearable for me, big no no, I need the warmth!” into taking showers with ONLY cold water. I do that now for two years on average on 6 out of 7 days of the week.

Trust me with this and read on. Or continue telling yourself your same old stories. Stay stuck and complain about it. Sound to harsh? Sorry, I read too many books of Nassim Taleb. So should you. Each of them. (I am working on the story of myself that I am a too diplomatic kind of guy, too. 😊)

A different story to tell yourself

Let me bring you another story, a theorem, a mental model. I wrote about mental models and what they are in connection with nightlife here.

This other story is the rebound effect, which basically says that increased efficiency in the usage of a resource does not lead to less but to more demand. This is because more efficiency leads to more usage.



Applying this logic to you and your emails means that the better you get in reading and writing emails the more emails you will receive. For example, if you receive an email from a client and answer right away you reward her behavior by this reply. This — consciously or unconsciously — let´s her know that her action of writing an email will get her a reply back. You reinforce her behavior.

You might now say or think: “But I have to reply!”. Again, do you have to? Do you have “writing emails” in your job description? If so, in case you are a communication agent or similar, better stick to it.

If not?

Well, this leads me to the ideas that can help you change your struggle with emails in the next section.

Start with questions to ask yourself

Take some time and ask yourself the following. No, not somewhen. Do it now!

  • What´s your job? Is it writing emails? (yes, ask yourself again)
  • What are the opportunity costs of your email reading and writing behavior? What kind of (deep) work do you cannot do?
  • What else do you miss out on?
  • What are the things you are missing out on worth in comparison to writing emails?
  • If you wanna get one level deeper, close your eyes and ask yourself: What feelings come up in your body when you think of your email inbox? Listen to your bodily feelings here.
  • What are your normal actions in response to that feeling?
  • And finally: What do you really want to achieve with your behavior?

You do not have to find answers now. Asking the questions is a good start. If answers come write them down to make `em stick.

What to do now

Time for some hands on ideas of what to do.


Source: Based on:

  • Do not reply (to emails you receive), or at least a little later than usual
  • If it´s your colleagues, suggest and do a daily standup or weekly instead
  • When people start asking why you did not reply, tell them what you are doing — many will like the idea. If not, show them this article. If they still not like the idea, they wanna stay stuck. Let them. Their expectations of you are not your problem — it´s their`s. And this doesn´t only apply to emails!
  • Create an “do not disturb” out of office reply in which you say something like: “I am changing my ways of handling emails. I thereby create time for myself to deeply work on meaningful tasks. I might get back to you, I might not. If it`s urgent, call me (is it urgent?). If it`s not, lets find some other time and means to deal with this topic.” You can also add a link to this article.
  • Look at emails at certain daily fixed timeslots
  • Delete the email app from your phone (tough one!)Disallow push notifications on your mobile and your laptop (disable all of them in the best case)
  • Continue writing your emails but look at it differently. Stop seeing it as a necessity. This will already change a lot.
Summed up: Give up the idea of inbox zero. The more you work on your emails, the more you will get.

If you still don´t believe me, see another theory below to back up what I am saying.

Some systems theory

I am a beginner student of systems theory and follow the Luhmann school. He worked on his systems theory for decades. Let me try to point out the most relevant points here. If you want to dive in further, you can listen to his 14 (!) introductory lectures on Spotify (German only).

He says that systems are autopoietic. That means that they keep themselves alive. They keep themselves alive by performing operations (like reading and writing emails).

What are systems? You are a system. You, together with your colleagues are a system. Your organization is a system. Your town is. Your country is. It´s systems in systems and it´s complex. It´s “turtles all the way down.”


Source: My own creativity with the help of Power Point

In general, social systems keep themselves alive by communication. A system does not consist of it´s participants, but of the established communication structures. In this case your emails.

In order to change a system, you need to irritate it.

This does not guarantee a change of behavior of that system but makes the change a little more likely than without the irritation. That is the reason I mentioned the actions / interventions above. With these actions you can irritate others. Attention! They might fight back because you kind of question their deeply held assumptions (stories) about themselves.

And if you yourself still do not believe me, well that´s part of a waaaaay longer discussion. Way longer means, 70 books (!) and more than 400 articles of Niklas Luhmann. And he is not the only systems thinker.

Bonus pro tipp

“Meetings should really be phone calls, phone call should be emails, and phone calls should just be texts.” (Naval Ravikant)

Does that contradict partly what I said above? Sure! Cope with it. If you are looking for one sided answers, look somewhere else.


I am really happy that you read this far.

I am rather bold with my statements in this text. The points of view are quite one sided. I am aware of that. But they are also loosely held. I am ready to give them up in a glimpse because reality is always way more complex than one line of argumentation. But it`s less fun.

I am happy to discuss any of the things I stated above. Mostly, to challenge my points of view — which I do continuously. I love to have opposing views in my head at the same time — and try to function nevertheless (based on a quote of F. Scott Fitzgerald)

So, feel free to connect and discuss. You find me on twitter @SirRendipity or LinkedIn

If you are interested in the application of mental models on seemingly unrelated topics, follow me.


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