Inbox zero is just a scam

Just like most of us, you might have been seduced by the now old concept of inbox zero. Wouldn’t that be awesome to get no message to read in your inbox? So quiet and restful! As weird as it can seem this idea rather makes me uncomfortable, and you probably as well. This feeling is actually perfectly logical. Here is why.

Facing the obvious fact

Considering that inbox zero is just a hoax feels obvious at the very moment we say it. Deep inside, we all know that messages are constantly flowing in and even in a rare moment when one would have no message remaining to be processed in its inbox, it would just be a very temporary situation. A situation that we can easily imagine a little stressful, as emptiness is not the exact definition of comfort. It may push us to wonder what is going to come next, what magnitude the upcoming burden will be. Uncertainty is somehow even worse than actually “controlling” the badness of a situation. So not only inbox zero is very hard to reach, but it is not as satisfying as advertised. That being said, the pain generated by the volume, frequency, and unclarity of messages we all receive daily is more than ever real.

The love of tricking ourselves

So, what is it that makes us (almost) consciously trick our brain believing that we could reach inbox zero someday? Probably the fact that inbox zero comes with the underlying promise that our stress and overwhelm will be over. This sounds great: to an issue we are all struggling with since always, we now know there is hope. And of course, we like this so much more than feeling hopeless with no solution in sight. This self-deception process, as psychologists call it, is as much a funny thing as it is necessary to our mental health in some situations. Although inbox zero is sadly just a fantasy, it most likely originated from the natural reaction to a mix of stress and overwhelm feelings induced by clogged email inboxes. Griefs that are very real.

What about a smart idea?

Evident pain shared by most people on earth? Sounds like there is a fantastic business opportunity! Let’s build a startup on it then! Some may take the obvious shortcut and think “To fix this I am going to create an inbox tool that will be empty as often as possible, yeah!”. Unfortunately, they would just be trying to fix the consequence of tons of underlying causes. And trying to fix a consequence regardless of its real root causes will most likely result in addressing the wrong needs.

The chicken or the egg?

We could spend hours identifying and analyzing what drives inboxes to be that much a source of discomfort, but I will take my shot at sorting this out briefly. It resumes in how the inboxes are designed, combined with the way humans are using them. We can all agree that the tools we are using are not perfect, and that none of us actually use them the perfect way. Can we influence these two things? One may argue that we can do almost everything that we want on the tech side, but changing people’s behaviors is a very different animal. I don’t disagree with this statement. However, I would add that humans tend to do what they do because they feel that they are allowed to do it. As long as nothing prevents them from doing it, technically or morally. The environment they are evolving into enables them to behave the way they do. In other words, our environment is shaping our behaviors. Now, why not taking advantage of this? It is very possible to influence people’s behaviors by shaping their environment.

Push the hidden switch…

Redefining the digital communications environment users are living into could fix the problem of clogged inboxes. In other words, let’s change the logic that has ruled the communication tools for a few decades already, and more specifically email. I deeply believe this is the way we should deal with the congested inboxes issue. We desperately need to leave emailing, because it relies on communication standards that are inherently at the root of the mess. Emailing rules let users write messages without restriction or guidance. We need a communication environment that prevents users from being at the root of the resulting discomfort, stress, and inefficiencies. We do not want to use a tool with tons of features and layers, with all the bells and whistles, built on a very unadapted environment that enables users to unconsciously create chaos. We want to fix the context first. We need rules that make users write clean, neat, wise, meaningful and purposeful messages. Messages that would be easily sorted out, manipulated and responded. We want their environment to make the users be the sharpest communicators. Seamlessly, by design. And only then we can build magic features on its basis. How are we supposed to do that? I will get back to this within a dedicated article, as the question deserves more than a paragraph to be answered.

… and make sure it turns on the good light

Anyways if we are not supposed to target inbox zero, what are we supposed to aim at? It is commonly agreed that the quantity of messages they receive is believed to be a source of stress and overwhelm for users. As much agreed by everyone as it is, this is also a wrong statement. What actually causes those bad feelings is the users’ inability to process as fast as needed and appropriately their incoming messages. Does one really think that anyone would care at all if everybody was able to sort out and process the right way a hundred messages in less than ten minutes? Of course, this is an exaggerated example. But it helps illustrate the point: if users can feel that they are totally in control of their inbox, that they are efficiently sorting it out, that they never miss anything, that they always provide a suitable response at the right time, and that managing their inbox does not require much time, then what is the problem with processing 50, 100 or 500 messages daily? The only element that would remain a frustration factor would be a high ratio of useless or low importance messages, which we can summarize as a waste of time ratio. Ultimately users need to feel that the time required to manage their messages is productive time. Which means 2 things. First that the messages they are processing are average or high importance. Second that the time they spend managing a message is spent working on the message itself, not manipulating the messaging application they use. All steps related to sorting, flagging, and more generically manipulating messages, are contributing to wasting time. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we can or should eliminate 100% of those steps. But this is where technology should help the most. Making sure that users spend more time working on the content of messages, rather than complying with the processes imposed by the application they use.

Ultimately, instead of aiming at an inbox zero chimera, I deeply believe that we should target to create smart messaging tools that let us focus on what matters the most, and accomplish our duties with true efficiency. This is precisely what I am targeting to build. I would be very pleased to read your opinions about inbox zero, the actual needs of email users, or even your vision about the right direction the aging email should move towards.