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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

November 5, 2012 at 2:20 PM

Why a messy inbox may not be so bad

When you’re drowning in unread email, you can believe one of two things: that you need to dig your way out, ideally to the all-clear paradise known as Inbox 0, or that it’s no big deal.

I’m surprised — pleasantly surprised — how many of you pick the latter.

“All Inbox 0 means to me is that I let others dictate how I prioritize my time,” Seattle geek guru Andru Edwards wrote on Facebook. He has more than 40,000 unread emails. “If someone emails me, I have to read/process it because they chose to send it? Nah.”

Bill Hammer gave a similar shrug in a comment on my Sunday column:

“Between my two personal addresses, I know i am closing in on 2500 unread messages, and i don’t really care much outside of the wishing they would stop coming,” he wrote. “Thing is, if it’s important enough, someone who actually knows me will call.”

I’m not as confident as Bill that important messages I ignore will come to me another way, but I’m drawn to both Bill’s and Andru’s refusal to see the inbox as boss. Inbox 0, as Andru implies, may not be the promised land it’s made out to be. Once you get there, you don’t stay for long. And you have to fight to come back.

Some email users pride themselves on tweaking their email management systems in ways that make return trips to Inbox 0 easier and easier. Others — myself included — aren’t sure it’s worth the trouble.

Many emails I get are important. My inbox is functional as long as those get to me. The rest are a kind of stream — a mix of subscriptions, notifications and FYIs that look a lot like my tweets and Facebook home page. I check them only if I have time. Why bother finding some artificial way to “read” them all just so a big number gets smaller?

It’s exactly this view of my inbox as feed as well as task list that make good email time management particularly tough for me. “Some good tips I’ve read include not doing email first thing in the morning and only opening that inbox to reply to messages. NOT to check and see if you have any new ones,” Ravenna blogger Rebecca Nelson responded when I asked for smart email tips on Twitter. “Inbox is not your news feed.”

But in the end, how we manage our inboxes may have more to do with personality than productivity. Productive people have messy desks, as Joe McCarthy mentioned in those comments. One way or another, we make it work.

“I have come to the conclusion that if I ever catch up, that will be the end. Of everything,” Seattle’s John Stewart wrote on Facebook. “A full mailbox is possibilities.”

Seen a story that caught your eye re: digital life? Email me at mguzman@seattletimes.com or reach me on Twitter or Facebook.

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