I have been using the Zero Inbox technique for my email (actually for all my emails) for a long time. It works because it is simple and because it is based on an understanding of the system that it serves (the e-mail). This month, I listened to two very different podcasts (more info below) which have nothing to do with each other that resonated into a single idea: Can you do Zero Inbox for your mind as well?
In this article, I have described my interpretation of Zero Inbox for the mind. My goal is to influence your understanding of the underlying system (i.e. your mind). And to show you what I use to keep that system in check and decluttered.
Time to read
Time to read: 12 minutes (based on 150 words per minute).
What does it mean to be stuck?
Are you facing depression? Or anxiety? Or burnout? Most of the time, all these emotions are associated with the feeling of being stuck. And stuck, in my opinion, means that your mind is focused on something and you are not paying attention to it. I started to imagine this feeling like a scheduled email that comes to your Inbox every day at a certain time. Your mind is telling you something: I NEED YOU TO DO XYZ! And what is your response to that? You either snooze or repress it. Or, you worry about it (but do nothing). Or even get angry at the sender. By the way, you are the sender … and the reader. Right?
As I already said above, this article is based on two podcasts. The first one is Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us and the specific episode is: How to Complete the Stress Cycle. In this episode, we meet Emily and Amelia Nagoski and learn about their book Burnout. Disclaimer: I have not read the book, but I added it to my t0-read list. The second podcast was Tim Ferris’s The Time Ferris Show and the specific episode it: Happiness, Reducing Anxiety. Tim speaks with Naval Ravikant about his way of life. How crazy it is that both episodes aired on the same day.
What is the problem that we are trying to fix?
I already touched upon this, but here I would like to elaborate a bit more. Being stuck (depressed, anxious, burnt out) is not the problem. The problem is that your mind and body usually give you ample signals many times before you get to one of these conditions. But you are busy doing something else and, most of the times, you are busy being busy. And this is the worst – being busy just to be busy is the biggest waste of your time. And, remember, time is the only finite resource that you have.
I wanted to use a saying here, but I did not find the correct quote, so I will paraphrase a little:
Life is like riding a bike. Except that you are going really fast, you have no steering wheel, and the bike is on fire.Unknown
What if life was not like this? What if there was a mechanism to step back and take a look at what your mind is telling you. And this is how the analogy with the Zero Inbox comes into play. Most people’s email is also cluttered and chaotic. Even if you have things worth reading, you cannot find them. But with Zero Inbox you schedule some time for you to go over everything and do one of five steps: delete, delegate, respond, defer, do. That’s it. But how does that look with your mind?
The sender, the reader, and the email
Before we finally get to the point, I would like to share my personal journey into this. On top of the two podcasts, there is a third dimension that helped me get to this idea. I am reading a book called Awareness by Anthony de Mello (link to Goodreads). If I borrow one his main ideas and convert it a bit to fit into my article it would sound like this: For every thought in your mind there are three concepts: The signal (i.e. the email), the sender (i.e. the “me”), and the reader (the “I”). You can also call it unconscious and conscious mind, but, ultimately, there is a signal, coming from somebody, addressed to somebody else. And since this is all happening in your head both the sender and the reader is you.
Anthony de Mello teaches the reader that most of the suffering in this world is because you are identifying with the “me”. If you are depressed, this is just you experiencing depression. You are not the depression. If you are anxious, this is just you experiencing anxiety. You are not the anxiety.
How can you get to Zero Inbox in your mind?
Here are the 7 (and one bonus) steps to get to Zero Inbox.
Step 0: Learn to meditate
Unfortunately, I am not offering a remedy that works out of the box. If you are looking for the one technique to fix everything, I am sorry to disappoint you. Like everything else in life, there is a lot of effort involved. You don’t necessarily need to know how to meditate, but you need to know how to sit patiently and observe your mind at work. I call this Step 0, because it is the prerequisite.
If you want, you could go back to one of my previous articles about mediation: How to Learn Meditation and Change Your Mind and Body.
Step 1: Understand the thought process
Borrowing heavily from the Brené Brown’s podcast: A thought (or an emotion, or a feeling) is a process. Each thought has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Just like every email has a greeting (“Hi Tin,”), a body (“I have a quick question …”), and an end (“Kind regards, Your Conscience”). You all read the beginning of the email (and the thought). But your problems arise when you get stuck in the middle. In the main part. And do you see the similarity between the email and the thought already? The email is just a piece of information (i.e. the “me” wants the “I” to do XYZ). And even if you read the email till the end, you are still not done with it. You need to decide what you want to do with it (i.e. delete, delegate, …).
Step 2: Delete
There are some thoughts that you want to delete. You do not delete a thought by thinking that you should not be thinking about it. Try very hard not to think about orange pigs. It is hard isn’t it? You delete a thought by accepting it.
“Thank you, mind, that you are surfacing this to me, but I choose not to act on it for now. Come back tomorrow.“
Step 3: Delegate
Here, I struggled to find the perfect analogy, but I will try nevertheless. You delegate an email, by re-sending it to someone else. You delegate a thought by remembering to ask someone else about it. If you are worried about your sibling, is it worth sitting where you are and worrying? I don’t think so. You can just call them, or set a reminder for yourself to call them.
Step 4: Respond
Remember, the email (the thought) is coming from the sender (which is your “me”) and is going to the reader (which is your “I”). The reader can decide to acknowledge the thought and respond to the sender.
“Yes, you are right about that. What should I do?“
“I see your point. What are the next steps?“
Step 5: Defer
You defer an email by marking it as unread or by sending it back to your inbox.
“Yes, you are right to worry about the exam, but I have planned to study tonight!“
“I see your point, but I can’t do this right now. How about tonight?”
It surely seems weird to talk to yourself. But we do it anyway. All I am saying is to respond. Respond with kindness.
Step 6: Do
I have deliberately left this action last. Not only because this is how Zero Inbox works, but because you need to be careful when acting on these emails. There are some situations where you might need to act: “I am starving!” Your body will tell you if it is starving or not.
But there is one more concept that I want to talk about here. We, humans, are the only animals that can put their mind between the trigger and the reaction. We have a very long list of useful evolutionary habits, but we have quite a few that work against us (e.g. feeling stressed out for non-life threatening situations). Be careful when you choose do and think about choosing defer until you have more time to think things through. There are very few situations in life where you must react immediately and they are usually very clear.
Step 7: Zero Inbox exercise
And finally, borrowing from The Tim Ferris Show, comes the final step that binds all the previous steps together. As we already established you feel anxious when you feel stuck (in a feeling, in a thought, in an emotion). The current way of life dictates us that we defer a lot of the thoughts that we have during the day. When somebody yells at us, we cannot just yell back.
This is when meditation comes into the picture. Every day, just after waking up, you sit for 20 to 30 minutes (Note: Naval Ravikant says 60 and if you can make 60 minutes every day this is wonderful) and you mediate. But you don’t just follow your breath, or follow a guided meditation, you just bring awareness to your thoughts. You see them come (beginning), stay for a while (middle), and go (end). You allow yourself to experience them and to respond to them. If somebody said something the other day and you did not react to it, the thought might come back during these meditations. You allow yourself to experience the emotion (i.e. get the cycle to the end). You are safe, you are alone on the floor meditating.
This is how you clear your inbox every morning and you can go on with your day feeling refreshed and free of any emotional baggage. It might take a while. If you are like the average person, you have a long list of unread emails and emails to which you have not responded. Give yourself this time. Especially now, after we have been on alert for so many months, because of the lock-downs and the uncertainly.
What are the next steps?
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