Inbox zero and our obsession with tidiness

Many of us including myself want a break, from the rush, the striving, the endless work. We think we can only find it if we get our inboxes to zero, that is to complete all the tasks and projects we have. So there is nothing left to do, we can then sit back and relax.

It’s a problem an Inbox zero problem.


I tidy up shelves, tick off tasks on my to-do list, complete projects, answer emails, but this excessive productivity distracts me. It’s ‘busy’ work to avoid the work I know I need to do, my writing, art and more. Decluttering and tidying becomes a distraction.

Such decluttering is necessary but it can be overdone. Such work merely makes us more stressed because the work we need to do is not getting done, and it remains on our todo list.

As the pile gets bigger and bigger we feel less inclined to face it. The task becomes insurmountable in our eyes, all the while the more work is discovered.

How can you tell if you’re in avoidance? When it stops you from doing the most important work in your life.


A bigger problem today is we’re overrun with inboxes. We have to strive harder to keep up to date with all of them. Watch lists for video, podcasts streams, blog post rolls, email subscriptions, reading lists and more.

A part of us feels that to do less is lazy. We’re told work is a virtue and getting ahead necessary to live a happy life.

Productivity then becomes an addiction. The work is never finished. There always seems to be something to do. It’s born from fear, of not being ready, not doing enough, not being good enough, not trying hard enough.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’ said Henry David Thoreau. I say it’s not quiet at all but all around us, what I call Humanity Project. Our desperation reveals itself in the world and our lives.

No wonder we’re exhausted. We have a desire to rest in a world that supplies us with never-ending work. But tells us we have to work harder, hardest to succeed, to be acceptable.

What can we do about our desperation, our need for empty inboxes?

The biggest step is to be aware of your desires, the desperation. To see where your desires are driving you towards or away from. In this case, an inbox that’s empty, clean, a nod towards perfection. See how much work you have been doing in service to this desire.

The next step is the acceptance of whats going on, and also the impossibility of it, the work will never end. What matters is to ask ourselves and try to answer, ‘what do we want out of life?’ Deciding what is important from what’s really important, and setting aside time in our days, weeks, months to devote to it.

One metaphor is to think of life as a Jar to be filled with marbles. The biggest most important marbles must go first, and you fill the rest with the tiny ones. But distraction has us filling up our lives with far too many tiny marbles, leaving little or no room for what matters to us.

Another step is to show some compassion for yourself, to accept that you’re so easily caught in desire. Then let go of the censure and beating yourself up. Understand that you will make mistakes, that there will be times when you are trying too hard.

One practical move is to remove inboxes, to have fewer of them. Many have found social media to be a trap. A bottomless pit of distraction and addiction to news, updates. Which is why many are avoiding it or removing it from their lives.

The Digital Minimalism movement is an effort by many people to reduce the negative impact technology has on our lives. To limit screen time, limit emails, subscriptions, apps, and the use of a smartphone.

With fewer inboxes there’s less work and attention needed to monitor and process them. Our cognitive machinery, that’s our brain/mind is less taxed with effort.

We need to spend less time on the minutiae of trivial tasks and more on work that provides meaning to us.

There is a Joy Of Missing Out, (JOMO), of not keeping up, the pleasure we get focusing on what we’re doing, and forgetting about other peoples lives. Contentment away from the noise and cacophony of the world, it’s pressures, distractions, and addictions to work and striving.

Our desire for an Inbox Zero is our neediness for life to be carefree, the need to relax, to be work free. It’s a box that we need to be ticked. Sometimes we overwork as a distraction from important work, alternatively as an addiction, a desire to have no work at all.

It’s not going to happen, and it’s a good thing, it’s nice to always have some work to do. It provides a focus and purpose, but too much can foster overwork and suffering.

We need to find the middle path, enough work to give us direction but not so little that we become bored, listless.

You can’t fix a rushed life by working harder to eliminate work, but neither is there pretending the’res nothing to do

So here’s to an inbox that is not overflowing, but never empty.

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