“Go Home Until Your Inbox is at Zero”

I’m giving a talk to a packed lecture hall.  It’s about personal growth, career progress, how to build your future, start a company or something along those lines.

I open by asking the audience a question,

“How many of you have more than two or three unread emails sitting in your inbox?”

The vast majority of hands go up, smiling and curious about what’s coming.

I say, “OK, everyone with your hand up, leave.  Go home.  Don’t come to a talk like this until your inbox is at zero.  Thanks.”

That’s what I imagined this morning while laying in bed half awake.  It was a great daydream. (Except for the travel involved in giving a talk. Ugh).

And it’s right.

Creativity “hacks”, time optimization, or ideas on how to change your life, an industry, or the world are more than useless if you don’t have dominion over the things in your nearest sphere of influence, like your inbox.

In fact, until you achieve and maintain inbox zero and a 24 hour response time to important communication (which is not that hard if you have a few ounces of discipline and persistence), the other tips and ideas will be a distraction more than an aid.  You don’t need to know about advanced tips for working with teams if you don’t even know how to work with your own tasks and communications.

I’ve met people who do a lot of stuff and have badly mismanaged inboxes.  I’ve also seen tall houses built on shoddy foundations.  It can be done, but every new addition or improvement is a bad idea, because it only adds to the value that will be lost due to inevitable foundation problems.

Inbox zero is an especially important task for those who are looking for that next big thing to make professional progress.  They don’t have any concrete jobs or paths.  They’re attending conferences and workshops to find far-flung ideas and inspiration to cobble together some amazing, creative project.  They’re always searching for that elusive ten-step plan that will get them results.  Yet the easy, obvious thing they have complete control over is running roughshod over them.  Their inbox haunts them and begs to be slapped back into shape, but they ignore it, chasing shiny objects over the horizon instead.

Sure, some day when you get 1,000 non-spam emails a day because you’ve created such a dent in the world you can approach your inbox differently.  Until then, pointing out that high-demand people don’t always respond to emails so you shouldn’t either is a cop-out.

Get your shit together.  Start with your inbox.  Until you have that mastered, and you use it like a pro, none of the other stuff will be good for you anyway.

By the way, this is no new insight of mine.  My daydream was probably prompted not just by age-old wisdom, but the ever-present discussions these days about Jordan Peterson’s phrase, “Make your bed”, which I was discussing with colleagues yesterday.  He’s right.


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