For more than a decade, many of us who get overwhelmed by clutter have aimed for that perfect moment where, by some miracle, our email inboxes have zero unread messages. Spoiler alert: For most of us, that moment will never come, and if it does, it won’t last long.
As we’re flooded with emails, it feels impossible to glance over all of their subject lines — much less read their text and take the time to reply. In this environment, where people across the world are the recipients and senders of literally hundreds of billions of emails each day, a journalist at The Atlantic has pioneered a new mindset toward the correspondence tool.
When technology reporter Taylor Lorenz got back to her office after Christmas, she had 2,700 emails waiting for her. That was a paltry sum compared to some of the people she recently interviewed, who said their inboxes had accumulated tens or hundreds of thousands of unread messages.
A seemingly dedicated adherent to the principle of “Inbox Zero,” where people aim to clear out their entire inboxes to keep everything clean and organized, Lorenz spent seven hours one day looking through these leftover emails from December. The next morning, she had 400 fresh messages. And it seems that that’s what drove her to a crossroads.
“In 2019, I suggest you let it all go,” Lorenz wrote. “There is simply no way for anyone with a full-time job and multiple inboxes to keep up with the current email climate. ”
With this wave of clarity, Lorenz created her new outlook: Inbox infinity. The movement requires explicit recognition that you, as a busy worker, cannot answer everyone’s emails all the time.
“Adopting inbox infinity means accepting the fact that there will be an endless, growing amount of email in your inbox every day, most of which you will never address or even see,” Lorenz wrote. “It’s about letting email messages wash over you, responding to the ones you can, but ignoring most.”
But the method also has clear pitfalls. What about all of those people you email often? Friends and family, or even work colleagues who need to be able to get ahold of you?
Lorenz has a solution for that, too.
“One critical step in the inbox-infinity method is to publicly admit that you have too much email to handle and be up front about not responding,” she wrote. “You can start by messaging close contacts and family members, providing them with alternative ways to reach you.”
She continued, “A friendly message to relatives might say, ‘Hi, I’m overwhelmed with email these days. I’d still love to hear from you, but if you want to reach me, I’d much prefer a call on the phone. My number is X.’ ”
In some cases, an out-of-office autoresponder may be the way to go, even if you’re at your desk and working. If you tell people you’re spending less time on email and focusing on other parts of your work, they can know why you may not respond right away and appreciate it when you do.
Could this be the miracle we’ve all been hoping for? Will the whole world start playing fast and loose with email, unapologetically letting messages slip through the cracks? Probably not — Lorenz even admitted that quitting email led to a missed opportunity for her. Plus, those of us attached to Inbox Zero are pretty used to decluttering, so it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to let go of the tremendous amount of anxiety 100 unread emails causes us just because it might be the in vogue thing to do.
But Lorenz’s newly minted philosophy at least acknowledges a huge problem that we have: Too much online correspondence, and no time to deal with it all. Now that we recognize there’s something wrong in our offices, maybe we’ll be able to fix it. Because the truth is, no one likes cleaning out an inbox for seven hours just to feel on top of things. And at the end of the day, no one should have to if it’s not the right form of communication for them.