Most of us get into bad habits with email: we check our messages every few minutes, read them and feel vaguely stressed about them, but take little or no action, so they pile up into an even more stress-inducing heap. Instead, Mann advised his audience that day at Google’s Silicon Valley campus, every time you visit your inbox, you should systematically “process to zero”. Clarify the action each message requires – a reply, an entry on your to-do list, or just filing it away. Perform that action. Repeat until no emails remain. Then close your inbox, and get on with living.
The quest for increased personal productivity – for making the best possible use of your limited time – is a dominant motif of our age.
We all have a set of instructions we use to process the world around us, but mine has never helped me achieve Inbox Zero, and probably never will. But I am good at ignoring email, and I spend maybe an hour at day at it. Most of that time goes to crafting and draft re-writes.
And yet the truth is that more often than not, techniques designed to enhance one’s personal productivity seem to exacerbate the very anxieties they were meant to allay. The better you get at managing time, the less of it you feel that you have. Even when people did successfully implement Inbox Zero, it didn’t reliably bring calm. Some interpreted it to mean that every email deserved a reply, which only shackled them more firmly to their inboxes. (“That drives me crazy,” Mann says.) Others grew jumpy at the thought of any messages cluttering an inbox that was supposed to stay pristine, and so ended up checking more frequently. My own dismaying experience with Inbox Zero was that becoming hyper-efficient at processing email meant I ended up getting more email: after all, it’s often the case that replying to a message generates a reply to that reply, and so on. (By contrast, negligent emailers often discover that forgetting to reply brings certain advantages: people find alternative solutions to the problems they were nagging you to solve, or the looming crisis they were emailing about never occurs.)
In terms of productivity, I am terrible at it. My solution is to work on as few things as possible. I don’t get a lot done, but I at least feel like what I do get does has some worth to it.
How different is the modern economy, in terms of productivity and the workplace? Has technology lifted so much off our shoulders that we actually have more time to dedicate to being productive, that we actually are not? At one point in history, work could have meant plowing a field, or tending to animals. This, I imagine, was very time consuming.
Tasks are so sped up now, or even eliminated, that it can be difficult to know what we should work on next.
(Quotes from Why time management is ruining our lives)