Ask Chicago software engineer Ben Rady how many e-mails are in his inbox, and you might be surprised.
He's part of a growing philosophy called Inbox Zero that's pitched as a solution to the overwhelmed, out-of-control feeling that a jammed inbox invokes.
Rady, 34, has subscribed to the philosophy since 2006 and is unequivocal: Inbox Zero saved his career.
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"There's no doubt in my mind that my career would be nowhere near where it is now if I had not done this or something like it. I needed to make a big change," he said.
Rady, who says he has a terrible memory and was disorganized, had just gotten a job as a consultant and was overwhelmed by the logistics of arranging meetings with clients and managing travel itineraries, in addition to the programming he was doing. His email was a central problem.
"I couldn't handle it," he said. "I had to get organized, or I would have been fired."
He went on to excel at his career and to write a book and teach classes on the side.
"A lot of people think it's impossible," Rady said of regularly reducing his inbox to zero. "I get the reaction sometimes, 'Why would you take the time to do that?' The whole reason I do it is to save time."
The basic idea of Inbox Zero is to use the inbox as a triage space for doing something with email, not as a repository. With a new email, you might delete it or move it to a folder.
The point is to act on email as you "process" it in batches. Leaving messages in the inbox is frowned upon.
So Inbox Zero doesn't mean you don't keep old emails, it means they're not in your inbox where they're a constant energy- and attention-sucking distraction.
As InboxZero.com says, "That zero? It's not how many messages are in your inbox — it's how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don't want it to be."
Inbox Zero is not particularly new, especially among productivity gurus. Its origin is attributed to Merlin Mann, founder of productivity website 43Folders.com, who, in turn, cites inspiration from David Allen, author of the book Getting Things Done.
Productivity consultant Jan Wencel, founder of Life Contained, is a strict adherent to Inbox Zero, but she doesn't push it on her clients.
"I advocate finding a rhythm that works for them, and that's not always an Inbox Zero," she said.
The system's deeper benefits go to the root of our most basic emotions: fear, anxiety, trust, control. They are the feelings that a jammed inbox can create and a better system for dealing with email can alleviate.
"I think for a lot of people it is emotional," Wencel said. "When they open their inbox, they hold their breath."
Not Rady; not anymore. Once a slave to email, he's now master of it.
"I would say it's almost purely an emotional tool," he said. "That's almost entirely the benefit."