Farhad Manjoo’s Five Tech Resolutions for 2013

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Jan. 4 2013 5:10 AM

My Technology New Year’s Resolutions

Forget Inbox Zero. Get off Twitter. And other resolutions to make my tech life better in 2013.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

I write about technology for a living, but tech, and the way I use it, frustrates me all the time. I’m constantly finding technology slow or annoying or buggy, and I’m always on the lookout for new ways of doing things.

The turn of the calendar is a good time to implement some changes in how I use technology. I came up with five tech resolutions for the New Year. Some of these might be applicable to you, too:

1. Stop chasing Inbox Zero.

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I’ve got 91,109 unread messages in my inbox, and I feel fine. Even worse, I have 4,152 messages flagged for follow-up that I haven’t yet gotten around to doing anything about. Do you consider me a slob for letting my email get so messy? Do you have a similarly overgrown inbox and find yourself racked with guilt and anxiety, vowing to turn over a new email leaf in the new year—you want to respond faster, respond more consistently, come up with system that helps you avoid missing important messages? Do you find yourself veering toward declaring email bankruptcy—a public admission to all your friends and colleagues that you’ve given up responding to them?

For the New Year, I say forget all that. I’ve tried for years to manage my email. There was a time I chased Inbox Zero—the zen state of having no more messages to read or respond to, and thus, supposedly, feeling a sense of guiltless peace with the world. Once or twice in my life I’ve achieved Inbox Zero. Getting there isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible (here are some of my tips). Maintaining Inbox Zero is harder still, but if you’re diligent and have time to spare, you can probably do it. Beware, though, that we’re all always getting more and more email—so the time you devote to tending to it will always increase.

But here’s what I’ve decided: Inbox Zero isn’t worth all that time. It’s a false god. I haven’t seen any evidence that diligently responding to, archiving, or otherwise maintaining one’s email improves life in any way. Sure, you don’t want to fall down on your duties—if responding to your boss is an important part of your job, then of course you should respond to your boss. But if you’re good at your job you’ll do that anyway.

What I’m saying is, don’t pursue Inbox Zero for its own sake. A clean inbox is nothing more than a flag on some server somewhere. It doesn’t mean you’ve actually gotten control of your life.

Rather than trying to clean my inbox, I’ve slowly grown to accept it how it is. My daily email routine goes something like this: I try to read most messages that come in. I respond to the ones I can immediately. I try to flag other important ones for follow-up. A few times a week, I look through the flagged messages and try to respond. The system isn’t perfect. I don’t respond to everyone I need to. I often respond much later than I should. Sometimes I miss important messages.

But here’s the key detail: I don’t let the tardiness bother me. So I’m not good with email; so what? As long as you’re attending to your work and your life, your email habits aren’t ruining you. Indeed, if you practice my carefree email philosophy—let’s call it Inbox Infinity—you’ll discover that most of your email isn’t that important anyway. I’ve found that most people aren’t bothered by late responses. They’ve got messy inboxes too. They know how it is. And if someone really needs to get a hold of you, he’ll email again. He’ll call. He’ll IM you. He’ll tweet. He’ll stop by your house and knock at your door.

2. Use Twitter less.

In 2012, Twitter evolved into something I’ve been looking for forever: The world’s perfect news source. For news junkies like myself, there was no better way to follow breaking events like the Sandy Hook shooting, Hurricane Sandy, or the fiscal cliff meltdown. Even big, months-long stories like the presidential campaign were best filtered through millions of tweets.

I found that Twitter not only helped me keep track of what was going on, it also added much-needed perspective around the news. A few years ago I wrote a book in which I worried about the Internet’s capacity to spread rumor and plug us into our own echo chambers. Since then Twitter has become the most powerful force to address those problems. This might surprise you, since Twitter is often criticized as being a disseminator of half-facts—how many times has Morgan Freeman been reported dead on Twitter?—but as BuzzFeed’s John Herrman pointed out in one the year’s smartest blog posts, “Twitter's capacity to spread false information is more than cancelled out by its savage self-correction.” This is true, too, of echo chambers: If you follow at least a few dozen people, you’ll inevitably find yourself exposed to many ideas that confound your long-held beliefs. Twitter is the anti-filter bubble.

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