The Myth of the Empty Inbox

postit scrabble to do todo
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I discovered by test that fully ninety per cent of whatever was on my desk at any given moment were IN things. Only ten per cent were OUT things–almost too few to warrant a special container. This, in general, must be true of other people’s lives too. It is the reason lives get so cluttered up–so many things (except money) filtering in, so few things (except strength) draining out

E. B. White in “Incoming Basket”, August 1938 (One Man’s Meat)

E. B. White wrote those words sometime before August 1938 and they are as true 83 years later as they were when he wrote them. Indeed, it sometimes seems like we’ve made little progress corralling all of the things in our inboxes. In my experience, “inbox zero” or the concept of the empty inbox is a myth, a mirage that rises from apps that tell me when there are no current messages in my email inbox. Announce online that you’ve reached “inbox zero” and a dozen of your friends will flood you with email messages that read, “Not anymore, haha!”

But an email inbox is one of many. Collectively, I don’t expect to see the bottom of my inbox before I leave this world, nor would a want to. A completely empty inbox is a life voice of any activity, any reason for growth, anything to anticipate. It is why I begin to think of ways to add to my inbox in 2022 before my collective inbox is even remotely close to being empty.

I complain about the backlog of little things that I allow to accumulate through a combination of laziness and excuses: changing light bulbs, cleaning out drawers, paying those few bills that aren’t paid automatically, emptying the dishwasher, folding laundry, running to the store for more milk. But only because there are other things in my collective inbox that I want to get to instead. There is a joy to thinking about all of those things that have accumulated that I am eager for: planning the upcoming vacation, writing next week’s blog posts, reading the next book, taking the kids to the farmer’s market.

There is another piece of wisdom buried in E. B. White’s inbox observations from his blind in 1938: only ten percent are OUT things. In other words, for every thing that comes in, one things goes out. This seems to hold true for me. For every ten emails I get, one may require an action from me. For every ten pieces of mail that show up in the mailbox, one may be something I need to look at. For every ten (or one hundred) posts I see on social media, only one requires a reply of some kind.

My inbox will never be empty. To think it will is to fool myself. The real trick is: for every ten things that make their way into my inbox, which is the one that is really worth doing? And once you figure that out, don’t sweat the other nine.

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