If you have a public-facing email address, wading through the unrelated PR pitches in your inbox can be a full-time job in itself. There aren’t enough hours in the day to keep up with every message you receive, so stop beating yourself up for falling behind and embrace the chaos instead.
Marketing emails may be the worst offenders, but they’re hardly the only thing keeping us from the uncluttered inbox we all supposedly crave. Anyone famous enough for unsolicited email but not rich enough to employ a publicist has to find the good stuff in a bottomless pit of networking requests, misdirected Google searches, and a harrowing assortment of messages from the general public. This particular predicament is all too familiar to journalists, and BuzzFeed News reporter Anne Helen Petersen has an excellent coping strategy: rather than approaching your inbox like a high-priority project, treat it like a social media feed to be perused at your convenience.
Think about it: you probably don’t engage with every Instagram or Facebook post you scroll past, nor do you reply to every single Twitter DM. Why should your email inbox be any different?
The answer, of course, is capitalism. Today’s labor market demands around-the-clock availability, and, in doing so, punishes workers who dare to set personal and professional boundaries. You can disable comments on YouTube and set your Instagram and Facebook profiles to private, but anybody with your email address has a direct line to you they can use whenever they want. The intense pressure to be known as competent and approachable can guilt you into answering every email you possibly can, but it’s a trap—replies only beget more replies. If the sender is selling something you’re not buying or making unreasonable demands of your time, it’s best for everyone if you don’t respond at all. Mark as read, delete—or block—and move on; your time is better spent doing literally anything else.
Of course, you do need to answer some emails, and how you designate those is up to you. I compartmentalize my inbox pretty aggressively—gotta love those “Promotions” and “Social” tabs, which I literally never look at—but my real trick is dismissing about 80% of my Gmail notifications right from my lock screen. The rest I either reply to as succinctly as possible straightaway or star and come back to later. Beyond that, I treat my inbox like a searchable archive and do all my high-priority communication on Slack or in text messages. It works for me, and my unread counter stopped bugging me a long time ago:
Remember: we all have the same number of hours in the day, but most of us are going it alone. Just like leaning in and waking up at 4 a.m., Inbox Zero is a marketing scam perpetuated by the rich and powerful to make the rest of us feel shitty about our productivity. Don’t let your inbox grind you down; it’ll still be there when you’re ready.