On Chasing the Right “Zero”

Yesterday, Merlin Mann shared his most recent thinking on ‘Inbox Zero’. You should read the whole post, but I wanted to share this bit in particular…

“Put to best use, Inbox Zero is merely a philosophical practice of learning to be parsimonious about which and how many inputs we allow into into our lives—and, then, to responsibly but mindfully tend to those inputs in a way that is never allowed to hinder our personal commitment to doing the work that really matters to us.”

Learning to “tend” (manage) multiple “inputs” (inboxes) effectively is important. However, it should not become “the work”. Anything that vies for your attention is an inbox: RSS, Email, your todo list, Twitter. With so many inputs it is not hard to see why the idea of ‘Inbox Zero’ captures people’s imaginations. It is a goal and a tangible one. However, the truth, as Merlin so eloquently explains, is not so rosy. The time and attention that is often given to achieving such a goal directly reduces the time and attention given to the things that matter.

I have been guilty of tweeting with glee when I have emptied my email inbox or read through every item in my read later list. However, in listening to Merlin talk about time and attention on his podcast Back to Work, I have come to understand that there is a better way to achieve ‘Inbox Zero’. I have learned to live with keeping a few items in my email inbox; I have learned not to fret as I keep adding items to my read later list; and I have also learned not to get stressed out if I have to keep putting off a job in my todo list.

You see, most importantly I have learned to “tend” my inboxes less frequently. I think it still panics some of my colleagues when they ask me “Have I read this or that email yet?”, and I answer “No”, explaining that my email has been closed while I have been teaching. During my lessons I am giving “zero” attention to my inboxes and 100% attention to my students. After all, that is why I am there right? So, why would I put my time and attention elsewhere?

To do “the work that really matters” you have to find focus. You have to give it the time and attention it deserves. So, please close your other inboxes and take a moment to read Merlin’s post… there is much to be gleaned from his words.

Why the rush?

Stop what you are doing.

Close your eyes and listen.

Listen to yourself breathe.

Do you hear it?

Keep listening. Listen for two whole minutes.

What happened?

Your breathing slowed, and so did your heart rate. It returned to normal.

The speed at which your heart was beating when you first began to listen was not normal.

You were breathing quicker; your heart was beating faster becuase you have bought into ‘rush culture’.

Deadlines, fast food, email, Google, notifications… all work to put you in a state where you think it’s normal to rush; to expect things to be fast; to be instant. They demand your attention and your energy.

‘Rush culture’ will leave you out of breath. It limits your ability to think, to reflect, to ponder. It raises your expectations falsely, increasing disappointment. It makes you believe that fast is best and instant is even better.

The truth is that ‘rush culture’ is distracting you from the things that matter. And perhaps more pertinently, ‘rush culture’ is bad for your health.

So ask yourself: ‘Why the rush?’

If you leave five minutes early and drive to work a little slower, will it make the journey worse?

If your food takes a few more minutes to arrive at your table, will your meal be any less enjoyable?

If you check your email twice a day instead of every five minutes, will it really make you less effective at your job?

If use a dictionary instead of Google, will the results be any different or less valid?

If you turn off notifications on your phone, will you really miss out on anything important?

The answer?


In fact, you will find that taking a slower journey to work makes you more mindful of your surroundings. You’ll take pleasure in the journey, enjoying the scenary as you travel.

You will find that saying no to fast food, not only improves your health but you begin to enjoy the wait. As the chef prepares your meal, you will have the time to reflect, or to enjoy the company of the person you are dining with.

You will find that only checking your email twice a day makes you a more productive person. You will be distracted less, allowing you to focus on ‘the work’.

You will find that using a Dictionary instead of Google, replaces the buzz of instantaneous results with a more wholesome pleasure. A pleasure that is punctuated by forgotten experiences, such as the smell and feel of the pages.

You will find that turning off notifications (even turning your phone off altogether) makes you more present; able to enjoy time with a loved one more fully.

The problem?

Instant results, fast food, constant connection, are all very appealing. It’s the appeal that is the problem.

‘Rush culture’ is like a drug, it appeals to your senses, promising the instant hit and the constant buzz. And too many of us, buy into it, without ever considering what it’s doing to our health.

There is so much to be gained from slowing down, from removing pressures and limiting distractions.

So, go back to the start, close your eyes and listen… contemplate, reflect, ask yourself: ‘Why the rush?’