The Myth of the Empty Inbox

Are you organized? Do you think of yourself as being ahead of the curve? Are you efficient? Productive? Whatever your answer to those questions, I suspect that sometime over the decade we have lived in this digital  world, you have felt overwhelmed by a bloated email inbox. In the days before digital life, you probably felt equally guilty about a physical inbox too.  Moreover, you have probably anguished at some point over the need to tidy your desk – or at least over needing to file all of the papers on it. These are familiar laments to most of us who work in offices. Messy desks. Full email inboxes. Papers everywhere. Aaaagh!

 doodle style inbox image with a huge pile of documents to be processed, indicating business, work, or stress

The notion of a messy desk conjures up a vision of the disorganized absent-minded professor, muddling through life, lackadaisically rummaging through strewn piles of disordered paper on a completely buried desk.  That’s pretty much the archetype of the disorganized person. Pigpen from Peanuts in a cubicle! Since the dawn of email we have adopted the same basic psychology for our email management. In fact, I can remember learning and then training people in multi-day productivity and time management courses to empty their inbox every day, using sub-files for categories of mail.  The thinking then was that if your inbox had no unread mail in it – and all of the read mail has been put into appropriate sub-folders – you would be able to breathe easy, free of the burden of looming messages and their content.

Well, I would like to give you some very good news.  I was wrong.

Having a messy desk is fine. Leaving ALL of your 30,000 email messages in your inbox does not in any way impede your productivity. To the contrary.

There is actual, mathematical evidence for the fact that the very best place to store your email messages is all together, unfiled, in your inbox. Moreover, your messy desk, with its piles of paper positioned in the fashion they fell as you touched them, may be the best approach to have them at-hand when you need them. These are provable facts, based on the algorithms used to write computer code for data retrieval and storage. “Data retrieval” (in computer speak) is what you are doing when you look for an individual email or the paper you need for a meeting.

Here’s the rationale:  Given the search capability of most computer processors today, it is faster for you simply to search for an individual email chain or letter than is the time it would take for you regularly to file all of your email. Therefore, for the most part, there is no reason to have sub-files in your inbox. On the whole, you will find what you need fastest by searching for a keyword, name, subject or something else.

Why did I say “for the most part” and “on the whole”? Well, there are some select instances where you may want to segregate email. If there are email messages or chains that are too generic to locate by searching, you may want to have a sub-file for all of those. For example, if you are a physician and receive very similar emails from certain insurance companies that all look the same, it would be difficult to know which term to use for a search without limiting the universe of potentials in some way. You can do that by segregating them into folders based on the company or the patient or the procedure. That will make it easier to search for a specific thread or letter. But otherwise, you needn’t file your email.

So, please stop fretting over the fullness of your inbox. You are not failing at productivity if, like me, you have 30,000 emails in there.

But what about the messy desk syndrome? It turns out, that under certain pretty ordinary conditions; a messy desk is the most efficient way to keep the papers you need. The conditions are pretty straightforward. If the mess (or set of organized piles) on your desk is comprised of the work you did last, and under that, the work you did before that, and so forth – the mess is fine. In other words, your desk’s piles of papers naturally fall from top to bottom in corresponding order to the order from most recently used to least recently used. The logic here is also based on computer data retrieval algorithms. The work that you last did is very likely going to be the work you will next do. So, by leaving that related paper on top, it is perfectly poised for access when you next need it. By inference then we can see that the work at the bottom of the pile is the work you are least likely to need – albeit still likely to use. In other words, as long as you do a periodic clear out, your desk’s disorder matches the order in which you will need the papers. Ergo: Your messy desk is perfectly organized.

I hope all of this is good news to you. It certainly made me happy! You can read more about the underlying reasoning in this very interesting book!



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