It was a lie, triggering simultaneous relief and disappointment. Inbox Zero, the badge worn proudly by those who can regularly respond to and act on all emails regularly, the ultimate sign efficiency and productivity, was never meant to be taken literally.
As an entrepreneur, you know the drill. Wake up in the morning, grab your phone off the nightstand, and see how bad your inbox is. Maybe you’re trending easy with 300-400 emails per day out of the 74 trillion emails sent per year, or maybe you’re closer to famed writer & producer Shonda Rhymes with a whopping 2,500 emails a day.
Whichever end of the spectrum you’re on, it’s likely you’re envious of those people who can get to inbox zero. It signifies that magical moment where all the mundane tasks of life are complete. However, the creator of the inbox zero concept, Merlin Mann, never meant for his simple system for processing emails to be taken as gospel with poor sinners constantly falling short of nirvana. Rather than the intended helpful organization and clarity, this philosophy manifests a wave of societal anxiety in all of us who never make it. Mann says he never meant to shackle us to our inbox. In fact, because of the unintended consequences of inbox zero, Mann is “abandoning [his] priorities to write about priorities.”
It makes sense that we all crave productivity. Whether you’re working to adopt the Six R’s of Maximum Productivity or trying to help your employees foster a strong work ethic, we’re all trying to get more out of every day. That brings us to the question of quality and quantity. Efficiency has become the mantra of our modern society. People who can produce more and produce it faster seem to rise through the ranks in their organization with lightning speed. But this productivity doesn’t seem to be producing more happiness in our culture or society.
Under this drive towards maximum efficiency and productivity are really questions about time: how we use our time, how we think about time, and how we manage time. The illusion of being able to do it all — balance work, family, ambition, friends, and self-improvement — is just that, an illusion. Rather than looking at time management and productivity, the real question we should all be asking ourselves is what our priorities are and what constitutes the best use of our time.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.” — Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
So how is one to optimally structure their time? Or Should you even try? In short, absolutely. Here are three areas to consider:
- If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. It’s critical to know what’s most important to you or your business and consciously make time for the activities that advance your goals. When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.
- Next, identify if you are a manager or a maker. Y Combinator’s Paul Graham first made this distinction between the back-to-back meeting filled calendars of managers and the need for thinking time among makers. If you’re a creative, filling your calendar with endless networking events and client meetings will inhibit your creativity and therefore the quality of your work. It’s critical for you to block out time to think, work, and be productive by closing your email, social media, and other attention-draining apps.
- Finally, take time to reflect on how you spend your time. Look at your calendar and identify areas of work that aren’t truly important, and eliminate them. You can’t fit everything in, so focus on where you can make time for meaningful exchanges and work that will advance your core initiatives.
While efficiency and productivity might be valued as core components of a strong work ethic, strategic time use is really the key to accomplishing what’s most important in life. The illusion of inbox zero and being able to squeeze more out of every day have led us to anxiety-filled days trying to pack more into each minute, which just isn’t possible after a certain point. When we admit that life is short — too short to fit it all in — we can take a step back and be strategic about what we want to include. Taking time to prioritize, think strategically about your calendar, and reflecting on past patterns can help ensure you’re actually using your time in ways that matter.