Merlin Mann, the man who coined the term inbox zero, is not too worried about his cluttered inbox. Mann began blogging about the concept, adapted from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, in the early aughts, back when you had to sit down at a computer and log in to see your inbox. “E-mail had become a source of stress for so many people,” he says. “It was great that people could contact you. It was not great that everybody can contact you with anything, at any time, with any expectation.”
So he came up with a few ideas to help people feel less overwhelmed. The goal was to encourage e-mail users to make conscious decisions about where they chose to focus their energy. “Every minute you spend on something is time not spent on ten thousand other things. The true inbox zero,” as he has always seen it, “is the amount of your attention on your inbox when you should be doing something else.”
But the term he chose, a catchy misnomer that spread like wildfire, doomed him to a fate of watching people endlessly shuffle around their e-mails with the meaningless goal of having zero messages in their main inbox. Since 2007, when Mann gave a Google Tech Talk about his idea, everyone from productivity gurus to mainstream media sites have offered tips and tricks for achieving zero emails sitting in their inbox. According to Mann, they’ve got it all wrong.
“I’ve come to think of it as more of a philosophy than a methodology,” he says now. “It’s about trying to put a stake in the ground with regard to your attention. It’s a way of saying, ‘Some people are allowed to have some of me, some of the time. Regardless of what the world demands of me, here’s what I’m offering.’”
Of course, setting boundaries around when and for whom we’re available online was tricky enough when email was our primary source of digital distraction—it all sounds a little quaint right now. In the age of social distancing and Slack, with so much of our work and social lives has moved online, it’s even thornier to figure out how to communicate and determine out when—and how—we log off.
The answer, of course, is that it depends. So here are five tips to build—and maintain—some digital boundaries,
Choose realistic goals.
“Step zero is, don’t lie to yourself,” Mann says. “You have no right to expect of yourself things that you’ve never done before.” If Instagram DMs with your friends is your lifeline right now, don’t set aside an entirely techless day. If responding to Slack messages on your phone is often useful, don’t just delete the app in a fit of Sunday morning frustration—consider using some more targeted settings to battle the exact problem you’re having. (More on that below.)
Set up explicit guidelines.
At some point, you’ll need to communicate your boundaries to the people you interact with online. If you’re in charge at work, establish rules for how you’re communicating. Ban “@here” if it’s happening too much. Tell people to respect “Away” statuses. Ask your team to schedule e-mails for the next day instead of firing them off at two in the morning. If you’re not making these sorts of decisions, consider asking your boss to set some guidelines around communication.
While guidelines are a little trickier with friends, you can do some damage control by being up front about expectations. Stuck on a massive group text about plans you can’t make? Politely say you have to miss it and leave the group.
Show, don’t tell.
“Office culture really comes down to what is rewarded and what is tolerated,” Mann says.
“If you reward or tolerate something, that’s going to be what people emulate, good or bad.” If you respond to every 9 P.M. message you get, you’re going to keep getting them. Maybe your job requires all-hours communication, but if it doesn’t, replying the next day should get the point across.
That maxim extends to friends that text you at unwelcome hours of the day. “If you become the sort of person who encourages lots of texts, and it makes you happy, that’s good. But if you keep responding and then wonder why it keeps happening, you might ask yourself, Am I really managing expectations here?” It’s pretty weird to ask a friend not to text you between 9 and 5. But if you don’t respond during that window? They’ll probably get the message (or lack thereof).
Use technology to limit technology.
The more advanced our technology gets, the more options it offers to keep itself in check. Case in point? The mute button. Putting your phone on Do Not Disturb is a great way to flip everything off without having to ask people to stop. If a group text is blowing up while you’re trying to make dinner, mute that group temporarily.
As hellish as Slack can be, Mann appreciates how much flexibility the app offers—if everyone using it makes an effort to get on the same page. For one channel he’s in, all participants have agreed to keep it muted unless they’re actively working on producing a podcast episode. The rule is, you can only tag someone (and therefore prompt a push notification) if you need their attention immediately. Another channel uses emojis to remind users it’s a business-only area. “If you come in to talk about Survivor, they drop in a briefcase emoji. That’s your yellow card, like, ‘Take it offline. This is not what this area’s for.’” So play around with your phone, Slack, and laptop settings—you’ll be surprised how much you can disable.
When all else fails, draw a line in the sand.
Sometimes the simplest way to stymie an influx of unwanted messages is just to ask. “Sometimes I’ll just say to people, ‘I don’t want it,’” Mann says. And that’s okay! “I don’t consider myself an unkind person because people are not allowed to wander in and out of the house at all hours. So yeah, you can knock. But sometimes I’m not going to answer.”