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Some people still delude themselves into thinking they can manage their email. They adopt strange rituals: emailing first thing in the morning, never emailing in the morning, reading email but not responding to it, organizing everything into folders, emailing exclusively like a boss. Software fixes such as Gmail smart replies have made responding to email easier, but often a response just elicits more email.
“Part of the reason why we get so many emails is that we’ve all been told this story about how we need to respond quickly to be productive and meet expectations,” said John Zeratsky, an author and designer who worked in the tech industry for 15 years. “But if you respond quickly, you have a reputation for being responsive, people send you more messages, and it kind of feeds on itself.” Zeratsky said that he, too, once subscribed to the idea of Inbox Zero, before he realized it was burning him out.
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The quest for increased personal productivity – for making the best possible use of your limited time – is a dominant motif of our age. Two books on the topic by the New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg have spent more than 60 weeks on the US bestseller lists between them, and the improbable titular promise of another book, The Four Hour Work Week, has seduced a reported 1.35m readers worldwide. There are blogs offering tips on productive dating, and on the potential result of productive dating, productive parenting; signs have been spotted in American hotels wishing visitors a “productive stay”. The archetypal Silicon Valley startup, in the last few years, has been one that promises to free up time and mental capacity by eliminating some irritating “friction” of daily life – shopping or laundry, or even eating, in the case of the sludgy, beige meal replacement Soylent – almost always for the purpose of doing more work.
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.)
The allure of the doctrine of time management is that, one day, everything might finally be under control. Yet work in the modern economy is notable for its limitlessness. And if the stream of incoming emails is endless, Inbox Zero can never bring liberation: you’re still Sisyphus, rolling his boulder up that hill for all eternity – you’re just rolling it slightly faster.