The eternal human struggle to live meaningfully in the face of inevitable death entered its newest phase one Monday in the summer of 2007, when employees of Google gathered to hear a talk by a writer and self-avowed geek named Merlin Mann. Their biggest professional problem was email, the digital blight that was colonising more and more of their hours, squeezing out time for more important work, or for having a life. And Mann, a rising star of the “personal productivity” movement, seemed like he might have found the answer.
He called his system “Inbox Zero”, and the basic idea was simple enough. Most of us get into bad habits with email: we check our messages every few minutes, read them and feel vaguely stressed about them, but take little or no action, so they pile up into an even more stress-inducing heap. Instead, Mann advised his audience that day at Google’s Silicon Valley campus, every time you visit your inbox, you should systematically “process to zero”. Clarify the action each message requires – a reply, an entry on your to-do list, or just filing it away. Perform that action. Repeat until no emails remain. Then close your inbox, and get on with living.
“It was really just a way of saying, ‘I suck at email, and here’s stuff that makes me suck less at it – you may find it useful,’” Mann recalled later. But he had stumbled on a rich seam of societal anxiety. Hundreds of thousands of people watched his talk online, and Inbox Zero spawned countless blog posts, along with books and apps.