This is Inbox Hell.

Warning! Don’t do it… don’t pick up your phone… don’t login to your computer… don’t do it! Next thing you know, you’ll be with me, in the depths of inbox hell. With all the email accounts, calendar invites, text messages, Facebook messages, LinkedIn messages, and everything else—I just can’t keep up with it all!

Zero Inbox

Have you heard of the ‘Zero Inbox’ idea? It’s a great approach to getting yourself organized that’s been around for years. The goal is to get your email inbox, or whatever your inbox is, down to zero items every day. Zero. Kaput. Nada. Nothing left to do. Nirvana. Sounds great, doesn’t it? It is, when you can actually do it. And there’re a bunch of systems that can help you get to zero items like the GTD method. I’ve used a few of them and have made decent progress staying on top of things. Well, I thought I was…

Just a short time ago, I had only my work and personal email account inboxes to pay attention to. That, plus a never-ending to-do list. It was all fairly manageable until I noticed the total number of inboxes I use increased. Increased a lot. I took a few minutes to look at all the ways I communicate with people, email and other ways, and the total number of inboxes, added up for each system, is ridiculous. Seriously. Ridiculous.

According to my cursory count, I have at least 15-20 separate systems to check, each with their several inboxes and notifications totaling over 200 separate inboxes! Crazy, right? Don’t believe me? Let me show you.

Let’s start with the usual suspects most of us use every day.

Email

Personal, work, the non-profit I volunteer for, and a few more email accounts. Almost ten in all. Fortunately, I configured email on my computer and iPhone to be able to see all these inboxes at the same time so not much slips through the cracks. A single pane of glass to see all my emails.

Phone

Home, work, Google Voice, cell. Also the text messages that come across each. Oh, and there’s WhatsApp and Signal as well. They have their own inboxes too. That’s another six.

Task Management

I use OmniFocus for managing my tasks for everything in my life; work, personal, the non-profit, etc. This system is about as efficient as it gets and it interfaces with all of my technology. It’s also based on the GTD method mentioned earlier. My one task inbox, thankfully.

Facebook

Yes, Facebook. If you thought social media like Facebook was just for catching up with friends from school, you’re in for a rude awakening. More people are connecting with me personally and professionally via all social channels available. They’re contacting me via my personal Facebook account as well as my professional Facebook page. And all those contacts need attention. They’re also chatting with me via Facebook’s Messenger. Time is also spent responding to people’s comments on my posts, participating in all the groups that I’m in such as my condo’s Facebook group, or the groups about the LiveLit, storytelling, and improv scenes in Chicago as well as groups from college and graduate school. With a quick check of my groups listing on Facebook, I belong to 68 groups. I also manage twelve Facebook pages. Attending to all that chews up and insane amount of attention.

Twitter

I manage twelve Twitter accounts, though only a few of them regularly. Each Twitter channel requires attention to not only the direct messages that I receive, but notifications of activity on each channel, and finally any Twitter conversations I’m engaged in.

LinkedIn

Like most people in the professional world, I have a LinkedIn account which serves as my on-line professional résumé. Additionally, I manage four company pages on LinkedIn plus seven groups, and I’m a member of over 50 groups and sub-groups. LinkedIn’s email system, InMail, is another place for me to receive spam from sales people who tend to live mostly in India and Ukraine who are trying to sell me cheap software development. Although there can be a high signal to noise ratio with InMail, there are, on occasion, important job and networking connections that do come through. Additionally, if you decide to share anything on LinkedIn there’re the notifications you get from people liking or commenting on your posts that also call for attention. LinkedIn also has it’s own publication platform called Pulse that goes beyond the standard sharing of posts where anyone on LinkedIn can write an article. It’s possible you’re reading this on Pulse, as I often cross-post my articles on LinkedIn, my blog, Medium, and other professional platforms like CIOWaterCooler. If you like this article or comment on it, I’ll get notified.

Think we’re done yet?

Nope. Not even close.

Here are several more inboxes that we probably have in common…

Dating Apps

Yes, there are the dating apps… all of them. Let’s face it, we all want to find love and it can get pretty lonely out there. Want to connect with someone new? Looking for someone to date, to marry, something else? There’s an app for that… of course, lots of them. Most people use a bunch of dating apps at the same time, each with an inbox that regularly calls for your attention. And it’s often on a timer. Seriously, you’re timed on how quick you respond. If someone likes you, you may only have a day or two to respond so you better get on it if you want to find the love of your life… or something else. You don’t want to be ghosting on potential dates you matched with in lieu of another dating app or another inbox in yet another app.

Fitness & Social

Speaking of connecting with other people outside of work, how about meetup.com? Meetup’s great for connecting with people with similar interests and/or if you just moved to a new city. Looking for people in your town you’d like to connect with who have the same interests such as; hiking, writing, movies, softball, or finding an Euchre group? Meetup is great for this… also with its own inbox. I’m a member of 75 Meetup groups. I have no idea how that number got so high, and I only regularly go to a few of the groups, but there they are, all waiting for my attention.

Have a Fitbit or Watch? If you do, you’re probably invited to challenges with your friends for the most amount of steps in a week or you get updates from your friends that met their standing goal today. Tons of fitness apps have these community connections. After all, it works better when you’re getting healthier with a friend than trying to go it alone.

More Apps

Do you use Google Apps for Business? Hangouts? Have a Google Voice number? An Office365 subscription? They all have inboxes for events in their systems too.

As if that’s not enough, I also use Instagram, Pinterest, Swarm, Foursquare, Snapchat, Tumblr, WeChat, Shapr, Yammer, Skype, Facebook for Work (Workplace), and Slack.

All of them have inboxes and notifications.

Calendars

Finally, let’s not forget the calendar. This is one of the most important systems for me. Fortunately, it has its own inbox for meeting invites but invites don’t always automatically appear in my calendar. For example, when someone sends me a place and time via text for a meeting or just to grab a beer after work next week. That stuff doesn’t just appear in my calendar. I have to take some extra steps to make sure those appointments get set. Fortunately, many invites that come via email do appear in my calendar automatically, sort of. I still have to accept the invitation. Then there are the calendar subscriptions that I have from Facebook, Meetup, or the shared calendars from work. Those just appear in my calendar—at least when everything is working correctly and I have a connection to the internet. I have twelve different calendars in my calendar app that tell me where to be and when. Tending to all these calendars and meeting invites requires a prescriptive care and feeding manual akin to that of a rare species of jungle wildcat.

Inboxes and inboxes from apps, calendars, phones, texts, etc. See what I’m talking about? It’s just nuts. That’s like a million different inboxes!!

Alerts, alarms, and phantom vibrations…

When I pick up my phone and look at all the notifications on the screen from all the different apps, most of which I haven’t even addressed here, it’s no wonder that people and to-do items fall through the cracks. Connections get abandoned, tweets don’t get responded to, and emails orphaned somewhere in the deep recesses of my gazillion inboxes.

And if, on one of those rare occasions, I’ve left my phone behind… I get phantom vibrations in my pocket. It’s like my body has become so accustomed to getting notified, I feel the vibrations as though the absent phone is a lost limb.

All those notifications chew up a nauseating amount of attention and time. That constant interruption isn’t in one big block of time either, but in the many tiny, constantly interrupting spurts of time by all the dings, pings, and vibrations of notifications I get on my computer, iPhone, and Watch. Some days, I feel like I walked into a pachinko parlor in Tokyo with a kid constantly tapping my wrist for attention from all the notifications I get.

This, is inbox hell.

It may sound like utter and complete chaos, and in a way, it is. Yet, I kinda make it all work. Well, sort of.

Is there a better way? Probably. Will that method get screwed up when a new hot app comes out? Likely. There’ll be a new way to communicate or to merge our contacts, calendars, and email accounts with one another. It’s a never-ending moving target to manage this ethereal eco-system of one of the most important parts of my life; my personal information management system. Without this system, that lives in the cloud, my life would virtually fall apart. And even though it’s so infuriatingly complex and disparate, it’s just amazing it works at all.

So if I don’t get back to you in a timely manner, it’s not that I don’t think you’re important to me. It’s just… well… your message may have gotten lost in the ether. Ping me again… I promise I’ll get back to you.

Do you have a different perspective on this? A different solution that’s less chaotic, you know, other than burning all of our tech in effigy. Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear from you. Really, I would.

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© Brian Greenberg and briangreenberg.net 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brian Greenberg and briangreenberg.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About Brian Greenberg

Brian Greenberg is a senior strategy consultant specializing in whole systems design and leveraging technologies to advance the goals of organizations in the public, private, academic and not-for-profit sectors. An information systems and technology leader, Brian has 20 years experience in information systems design, architecture and business operations.  Brian holds a B.S. in Philosophy & Applied Computer Science and a M.A. in Whole Systems Design – Systems Theory. As a frequent industry speaker, Mr. Greenberg addresses how organizations can better align legal and business requirements with IT and has presented several papers and participated at conferences. Brian also sits on the Board of Directors of EcoMyths Alliance, a consortium of environmental education partners.