My OCD for Inbox Zero

Nan Xiao August 15, 2018 2 min read

Inbox zero means having zero unread emails in your email’s inbox. I have an OCD for it.

Photo: Fraser Valley, British Columbia, Canada.

Many years ago, like many people, I used to “mark as unread” some emails I received, when I cannot decide to reply or not reply immediately for whatever reasons.

Obviously, pretending things as unread is not an effective strategy to get them done. I didn’t reply to the things I want to say yes quickly enough, which could make people think that I’m not interested. Then again, I also didn’t say no as early as possible to the uninteresting stuff, so people may think that I’m a jerk. As a results-oriented person, the “unread” emails created so much psychological burden for me – I have to think about clearing that unread number all the time, while it just kept rising most of the time.

One day, I got my epiphany. I suddenly realized that, in terms of creating values for the world, >99% of the information we exchange is useless, or, per Jerzy Neyman, worse than useless. It means, statistically speaking, we don’t need to be overly serious about these communications, although a super small number of them might be the life changer when we look back someday. Time persists, and almost everything else is insignificant.

After unblocking my mind, I wrapped up all the unfinished business in all my unread emails and achieved inbox zero in a day. Now, when I receive a communication in any form, I will make a fast decision with three possible outcomes: 1) reply yes with an action plan, mark as read; 2) say no directly but politely to set people free, mark as read; 3) not reply and not think about it, mark as read. I don’t like seeing any unread emails in my inboxes at all.

I have been keeping all my inboxes clean for a long time, and probably also applied this OCD to other venues: Slack, IMs, GitHub, and so on. I should say, it’s really working out.