Each morning, with a green juice in hand and coffee on deck, I head into the office ready to check each item off my to-do list. Then I open my email inbox. Suddenly, I’m playing a day-long game of whack-a-mole, delivering on email asks and sending responses at rapid speed.
Until recently, I prided myself on my near-perfect adherence to the “inbox zero” philosophy. Responses along the lines of “wow, that was fast!” flowed in. No question went unanswered. From about 8 am until 11 pm, I dealt with any and all emails as immediately as possible. And yet, no one was really asking for that.
So often, we get caught up in conversations about the always-on culture we live in that it can be easy to miss the obvious: much of the pressure we feel is self-imposed— or at least it was in my case. Nearly all of the time, the people emailing me don’t require an immediate response. Among most, there’s a common understanding that we all have a lot to do. And how’s a working mama supposed to get it all done? By taking control of our time. That’s why I’m done letting my email inbox function like a to-do list.
Beyond the fact that my zealous commitment to a clean inbox distracts me from spending my precious time in the office the way I want to, it also cuts into more precious time: the few hours a day I spend at home with my daughter. I’m ashamed but not afraid to admit that way more than once, I’ve spent a good part of the little time I have at home with her on a weeknight typing furiously into my phone, telling her to “go pick a book” with a level of half-presence that doesn’t reflect how I’d like to parent. I’m easy enough on myself to admit no one is perfect. I can forgive myself for the times I’ve been more attuned to my phone than her. But I can do better.
Although I’ve never been one for resolutions, I came into this year with one. For the first time ever, I’m ready to drop my “inbox zero” obsession. I became willing, for the first time in my adult life, to let notifications linger.
Heading into the year, I thought my commitment to a dirty inbox really bucked the trend. I was laughably wrong. Turns out I’m far from the only one ready to let go of the sisyphean task of keeping a clean inbox. Early in January, a call for “inbox infinity” appeared in The Atlantic. The gist: accept that the emails will continue to pile up and you may never get to all of them. Days later, frequent New York Times parenting contributor KJ Dell’Antonia shared relatable sentiments in Why I Didn’t Answer Your Email. The fact is, we’re all receiving too much email to deal with immediately. But where do we go from here? What does “Inbox Infinity” look like in practice?
As I began exploring this question, I reached out to mama bosses within the HEYMAMA community for advice on how they manage their inboxes (the irony of the fact that I reached out via email is not lost on me). Mama boss Rebecca Minkoff said “I try and manage it. I fail daily. Then when I have lots of time, I go back to the beginning and see what I can tackle and work towards present. Then I sometimes give up.” She also shared a tactic I’m going to try immediately: skim for MUST answers and hope to come back to the rest! Melissa Ben-Ishay of Baked by Melissa shared her strategy…and her take on inbox zero: “I mark things unread that I need to go back to, delete junk mail as I see it, and don’t generally worry about getting my inbox to zero (hasn’t been at zero in years).”
In addition to taking advice from the mamas around me, I’m not going to let the fact that I’m brand-new to the dirty inbox game stop me from sharing my own strategies. The first— any maybe the scariest— is closing my email inbox when I need to go heads-down on a project. If tuning my email inbox out for two or three hours means I can fully focus on finishing a Hubspot flow or iron out the details for a new content series, the benefits far outweigh the risk that the world will plunge into chaos. Not only to I get to accomplish something meaningful, when I do get back into my email inbox I’m better able to respond because I’m not multitasking.
I do have a partner in all of this: my new planner. After relying exclusively on all things G Suite for the past two years, I made a detour into the neighborhood bookstore before heading into the office last Monday morning. I asked the guy behind the counter if he knew whether any of the planners on display had room for both a schedule and a to-do list. He didn’t, but he offered to help me search. The very first planner he picked up off the shelf room for both. Minutes later, I was on my way. In my newfound commitment to inbox infinity, I’ve held myself accountable to whatever is in this gorgeous little book before dealing with any non-urgent emails. If an action item arrives in my email inbox, it goes in the planner and it gets done— in that order.
With all of that said, I’m holding onto one piece of the “inbox zero” philosophy: sorting emails I can’t deal with immediately into folders. It’s a means of taking immediate action without switching lanes. When I move something to a folder it’s not in my main inbox purgatory. It’s in a design inspo folder, ready for me when I need design inspo. Emails from mamas interested in editorial features are ready for me to review when I have the time to give them the attention they deserve. And, of course, the time to review folders is set aside in the trusty new planner keeping me on track.
For more insights on managing your email inbox, here are tips to detox your email inbox from our own Larisa Courtien. As always, if you’re a HEYMAMA member with organization or productivity tips to share, get in touch. That’s what I’m here for!