If you’ve been to one of our seminars or had a bit of our coaching, you’ve no doubt heard us talk about ways of working that allow you to deal with email backlog. If you’ve attended one of our two-day seminars and implemented the new ways of working in your email, you may even have been able to achieve that exquisite “inbox zero” state.

Some people feel so liberated by a zero inbox that tasting it once is all they need – from then on, they make sure to dedicate enough time in their days to clarifying and organising email so that they regularly get back to “clean” and feel that same sense of liberation.

But not everyone gets clean regularly. Quite often I’ll find that people settle at a number that’s close to zero, but not quite there. A few dozen. A hundred or so. They could get to zero with a bit more focus and time, but they choose not to. They regularly get close, but regularly decide that close is good enough.

I’ve been noodling recently about this pattern, to understand why it’s appealing to leave a few things in ‘In’. I think what lies behind it is apprehension about what a zero inbox truly means, and what it demands of us.

Here’s the thing: once you’re at zero, you have to confront something daunting: what will I focus on next? There’s no more email to react to, to “work through”.  You must own the decision about what next gets your focus. The options likely involve much more scope, and can be daunting.

If there’s no more email to focus on, what will you focus on? You might have to face bigger questions. Am I making enough progress toward my annual goals? Does my relationship with my son need some work? Am I happy in my current job? As David Allen says, “GTD confronts you with your life”, and that confrontation is more likely with a clean inbox.

It’s understandable, then, that some people in effect say “Please don’t let me get to zero. If I get there I’ll really have to confront what’s important.” There is a solace, in other words, in a full inbox. Shielded by my emails from those bigger questions I can plough through the day. I may even get a bit of a sense of accomplishment (another email responded to – tick!), but I’m unlikely to have the confidence that I’m giving enough focus to what’s truly important.

So getting to zero isn’t just about the mechanics of clarifying and organising. It’s also about choosing to be courageous. The other side of zero may lie a host of bigger questions, but they’re important questions that deserve consideration.

Most of the professional world is driven by their email inboxes. Don’t settle for that. Be audacious. Get to zero.

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