Inbox Zero vs Inbox Infinity

Spike Team
By Spike Team, April 06, 2022, 9 min read

Email remains one of the most important forms of business communication, with the average full-time worker in America receiving around 120 messages every single day – and that was before the pandemic made working from home the norm.


It equates to the average professional spending around 28% of their workday checking email. What’s worse, far from boosting their performance, this amount of email communication can actually have severely damaging effects, with email overload causing stress and all the dangers that come with that.


Furthermore, it’s not just emails that the average employee has to deal with anymore. There are chat apps, calls, meetings, notifications, pings, check-ins… the list of things to keep up with is endless. So it’s no surprise that people have been ruminating on methods to better manage emails for decades.


One of the most popular techniques since the 2000s has been inbox zero, but it is by no means the only method preached. In this article, we’re going to take a look at what inbox zero is, how it stacks up to an alternative, inbox infinity, and what might be the best option for you.



What Is Inbox Zero?



It’s likely that you’ve come across the term inbox zero before, but surprisingly, the zero doesn’t actually refer to the number of messages you should have waiting to be read. According to Merlin Mann, who developed the concept of inbox zero out of the ideas of David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, it refers to the aim of having an employee think about their email zero percent of the time.


Mann argued that people’s focus, energy, and time are limited each day, and the less of these resources that go into a person’s inbox, the better. He identified five possible actions for every email, similar to what one might do with a priority matrix:

  • Delete

  • Delegate

  • Respond

  • Defer

  • Do

Mann preached many techniques to achieve inbox zero, and some of the core ideas are:

  • Never leave your email app open – if you need to take action with an email (from the list above), do it and move on. Leaving your email client open is asking for distraction from other more important tasks.

  • Set aside specific times to check your emails rather than acting on them as they come in. This could be, for example, at the start and end of every day or at the top of the hour.

  • Delete and archive as many emails as possible before dealing with others. This will help declutter your inbox and keep you from being distracted.

  • Respond to new emails as promptly and quickly as possible – leaving emails sitting there waiting for a response will only distract you from other tasks. Write concisely and clearly to minimize the amount of time you spend on each message.

  • If an email requires more attention or time, it should be deferred to be dealt with properly at a later point. However, you should always carve out time to dedicate to these messages and use a system to not lose track of them.

There is plenty more to inbox zero, and we’ve talked about it a lot at Spike, but here we’re trying to figure out if it is the best option for you, so let’s take a look at an alternative: inbox infinity.



What Is Inbox Infinity?


Not quite as clear as its competitor, inbox infinity is simply letting go of trying to deal with all your emails. Rather than scrambling to deal with as many emails as possible as quickly as possible, you just… don’t.


The term supposedly comes from a 2019 article in The Atlantic by Taylor Lorenz, aptly called, Don’t Reply to Your Emails. In this now-manifesto, Lorenz explains that despite taking the time to clear out their thousands of emails, their inbox was quickly filled with hundreds more.


An experience that many of us will be all too familiar with. However, rather than continuing to battle against the onslaught of emails, Lorenz instead opted to “let it all go”, arguing that there is no way for anyone with multiple inboxes and a full-time job to keep up with their emails these days.


So, rather than burning out trying to keep up with emails, you should switch to inbox infinity, Lorenz argues, accepting that there will be “an endless, growing amount of email in your inbox every day, most of which you will never address or even see.” You respond to the ones you can, but let the rest simply wash over you, never to get a response.


When opting for inbox infinity, there are a few steps that have been suggested:

  1. Publicly announce that you have too many emails to handle and that you will no longer be responding to them all.

  2. Offer family and close friends an alternative, e.g., a phone number.

  3. Set up an auto-responder to manage expectations, including things such as:


    • If or when a person can expect a response from you
    • More appropriate departments or individuals (e.g. “this is the sales email:”)
    • Some FAQs if you’re always getting emails about the same topics


Of course, this doesn’t work for everyone all of the time. Setting an auto-response on your work email explaining that you’re no longer worried about replying probably isn’t going to fly with clients. However, even doing this on your personal account is a great way to start curbing the amount of time you spend in your inbox.


Furthermore, you can always include aspects of inbox infinity to help you manage your emails. For example, an automated message letting a sender know what kind of time frame you’ll be able to respond in, along with some valuable links and alternative contacts in the company, could benefit some people.


What’s more, inbox infinity doesn’t mean that you’re banned from opening your email client. It just puts the power back in your hand to decide when, or if, you want to connect to the world.



Which Method Should You Choose?

While inbox zero and inbox infinity may seem like two ends of the spectrum, they are actually both aligned in their aim: having you put less time, energy, and resources into your email inbox, making them both a useful choice.


That said, inbox infinity just isn’t very feasible for most people. Email remains one of the most prominent forms of business communication, and very few people have the luxury of being able to simply ignore it.


This doesn’t mean that everyone should leap into the inbox zero camp – most people will be best suited somewhere in between with a well-managed inbox that doesn’t necessarily stick to inbox zero but doesn’t let important messages wash over them either.


The important thing to take away from both of these email management methods is that you need to find a way to spend less time on emails, and that method needs to work for you. That doesn’t mean you have to always be battling against the surge of emails coming your way because these days, there are tools to take some of the weight off your shoulders.



Spike – Email Done Differently

Spike keyboard shortcuts


We know that you don’t have time for inbox zero – nobody does in this day and age, but it has many benefits. Similarly, inbox infinity is extremely attractive –  not worrying about checking and sorting every email that lands in your inbox would significantly reduce most people’s stress!


So how do you get the benefits of both without committing to either? Spike.


Spike offers, for example, Priority Inbox, which automatically sorts incoming messages, sending you the ones that matter, whilst all the rest are sent to the “Other” folder. This keeps your inbox uncluttered without having to manually sort like you would with normal inbox zero. At the same time, it brings some of the benefits of inbox infinity since you don’t have to worry about piles of emails flowing in – they’re being sorted for you!


Similarly, if you’re going through your messages and, as Mann suggests, you want to defer something, you don’t have to worry about losing it forever – just hit the Snooze function and the email will pop back up exactly when you need it.


What’s more, Spike offers alternative forms of communication – from video meetings to voice notes – all of which act to reduce the load on your email inbox. Why does Spike house all this and more in a single app? Because it’s not trying to get you to inbox zero or infinity, it is designed to help you talk to people. Rather than emails being a task to tick off your daily list, they become a tool to help you achieve your goals as you use Spike as a communication hub.

FAQs About Inbox Zero Vs Inbox Infinity

In short, no. Inbox infinity is letting go of the idea that you need to manage your emails. It is letting emails flow into your inbox and out of your mind as you accept that you will have an ever-growing number of messages that you will never respond to or read. However, you can choose to respond to whichever ones you want. 

Inbox zero is a method to keep the amount of time, energy and effort an individual puts into their inbox as close to zero as possible, not the number of messages you have. There are numerous techniques to do this, but it generally boils down to quickly prioritizing and dealing with emails at set points throughout the day, and at no other times. 

The most likely answer is no. Unless you are one of the very few people who have the luxury of being able to ignore all emails, you’re probably not going to be able to go full-infinity with your work mail. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t try it with your personal inbox or incorporate certain aspects of the method.  

Spike Team
Spike Team The Spike team posts about productivity, time management, and the future of email, messaging and collaboration.

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