At some point in my internet travels, I came across Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero,” a protocol for keeping one’s email
inbox at, or close to, zero messages. I won’t go through the protocol - just search for either “inbox zero” or Merlin Mann to learn it.
I have been practicing it for some time now and recommend it. Before learning about inbox zero, I would occasionally delete everything in my
inbox without first going through it, figuring that if anything in the collection were super-crucial, it would surface at some point and I’d deal with it then. That rarely
happened, which made me question why I had been holding onto my trove for so long and what the cost to me had been of chaperoning all that useless material.
With inbox zero, I no longer use that scorched earth approach, or at least I scorch the earth in a more systematic manner. When I tell my
colleagues what I do, some are jealous that they can’t (that is, won’t) do it, and others become suspicious of my motives, as if not having 39,000 emails in my inbox
(as my cubicle-mate does) indicates a lack of virtue and makes me an email libertine.
Of the many advantages of inbox zero, what I like most is not having the whispers of 39,000 inbox emails in the background all the time. I
also appreciate that I can see my inbox more spaciously when I know that “below the fold” at the bottom of the screen are not hanging years’ worth of words and
events. Mann suggests that if one must save emails, then have a single folder called “Important” and put them in there and then search through them if needed.
Don’t make a folder tree and parcel out emails into named depositories - it’s a waste of time and effort.
What would it be like to apply inbox zero rules not just to the email inbox but the inbox of one’s own memories? In the April 2016
issue of Wired is an article by Erica Hayasaki called In a Perpetual Present. She describes a condition called “severely deficient autobiographical memory.”
Susie McKinnon, the subject of the article, has no ability to recollect memories from her past or to anticipate anything in the future. It isn’t that she’s lost the
memories of her experience; apparently, she never had them to begin with. For instance, in talking about a trip she and her husband took to the Cayman Islands, she imagines that
it must have been hot and that she and her husband did a lot of walking. But it’s a guess on her part - she has no memory of the event and can’t generate any
feelings about it.
She lacks the ability to create “episodic memory.” Episodic memory, as the author writes, “integrates time and sensory
details in a cinematic, visceral way,” and this is what McKinnon cannot do. Yet she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out on anything, and her condition does not
prevent her from living a full social life. Hayasaki concludes that “while most of us experience life as a story of gain and loss, McKinnon exists always and only in her
own denouement. There is no inciting incident. No conflict. And no anxious sense of momentum toward the finale. She achieves effortlessly what some people spend years striving
for: She lives entirely in the present.”
Or, another way to say it, she lives with inbox zero.
To gain a bit more room in our apartment, the Marvelous María Beatriz and I have been winnowing our belongings, another version of inbox
zero. In doing so, I have come across old photos, bills, tax forms, and so on that I have to shred before I can discard. Going through these materials has brought back the
episodic memories attached to them, usually accompanied by barbed feelings of regret and shame and, less often, of satisfaction and pleasure. I have to say that I don’t
really like these intrusions of memory - I don’t find them comforting, and they only make me want to get through the shredding faster. How much more pleasant, at least for
me, it would be to have a deficient autobiographical memory so that I could look upon this past evidence of a life as if it were something I found in a flea market about which I
could be both indifferent and amused.
Inbox zero would not be a bad way to go. Obviously, Susie McKinnon has a life that she enjoys, and as one of the researchers who examined
her said, “It raises fairly large questions, [one of which is] ‘What exactly does recollection do for us?’” Good question, I say. Good question.