The Futility of “Inbox Zero”

Today I read with some amusement “8 tips for getting to inbox zero — and staying there” on Vox. I had no idea people actually attempt this, getting all their emails marked as read and filed away.

"Inbox 965"

“Inbox 965”

I take the opposite approach to “Inbox Zero” I like to call “Inbox One Thousand.” That’s a photo of my unread email status on the right. After “Inbox One Thousand” is achieved the next goal will be “Inbox Two Thousand” and I hope to live long enough to see “Inbox Ten Thousand.” As you might expect, the idea of filing every email I receive into categories is unbearably tedious to me.

I’ve noticed that sometimes people confuse being busy with being productive. As The Onion wrote long ago, “Work Avoided Through Extensive List Making” and so it would appear to be with filing away emails into nice neat folders for use someday.

Turns out I’m with Ezra Klein, as he writes “I have this theory that people overestimate the hassle of how hard it is to fix things when they go wrong and underestimate the hassle of the buildup of small things we do every day to keep them from going wrong.”

I support Klein’s theory and it is supported by my experience at Yahoo. Hard as it is to believe now, Yahoo was not a search engine, it was a directory. We employed an entire building full of people we called “surfers” whose job it was to file websites into slots in the directory. That’s right, we hired people to manually categorize all the pages on the internet.

Yahoo in 1999

Yahoo in 1999. Notice how difficult it is find the search box, the thing everyone used

This exercise in futility was reflected on the Yahoo home page. Take a look at the page and you’ll notice 70% of the page is made up of the directory, something no one used.

Drilling down to find exactly the website I want to find? You’ve got to be kidding me. I, along with everyone else, instead used the tiny search box at the top of the screen. But we were tied to the directory, it was the thing Jerry and David built that was the cornerstone of the whole company. It wasn’t long before Yahoo was usurped by a company that did away with the directory and gave users what they wanted – search.

So it is with filing your email. Doing so is a relic of the days when we kept things in file folders and cabinets. It doesn’t scale with the volume of emails being sent out and received today. Don’t bother, just leave it in an unsorted pile in your inbox. When you want to find something use the search. It’s sometimes a hassle but it beats sorting emails a hundred times every day.

Putting on a Show

PP-2When I worked for Yahoo we used to have a big annual sales conference in some distant location. The year I went it was at a resort in Phoenix.

It was a huge expense, flying employees in from all over the world, housing and feeding us for three days. So, as all corporations do, in order to justify the cost our days were crammed with meetings and presentations.

Most of them were tedious. Except for one. I arrived for it 15 minutes late and hungover and it was the only corporate presentation I’ve ever wished I arrived early so I could have witnessed the whole thing.

The speaker, Tim Sanders, was a new employee from the recently acquired Hardly any of us knew him. But he stood out immediately because he dressed like a rock musician – long sideburns, modish haircut, clothes that looked vaguely corporate but with a rock star twist, like when The Beatles wore suits on stage.

He also stood out because the things he was presenting were, for the first time at the conference, genuinely insightful and interesting. He didn’t just recite from a piece of paper and drone on about revenue charts.

Further, his stage manner was effusive – he bounced around the stage, directing our attention this way and that. He pointed, he raised his voice, he slowed down, he paused. His story had twists and turns. We didn’t know where it would go next and hung on every word. I don’t know how many people were in the room, I’d guess 500-1,000, but he captivated all of us. Some in the audience were literally billionaires.

This speech happened early in the conference and he was the talk of it for the rest of our stay. You’d hear “Who is Tim Sanders?”, “What does he do here?” at lunch, dinner, and over drinks. I remember seeing him at the bar and everyone was trying to get in his face, all of the girls were cozying up to him.

A star was born. In a few months management created an entire department for him. The speech catapulted him from being an unknown newbie to managing a team that was well known to the execs. Apparently he honed his performance chops from playing in various types of bands so my tagging him with the “musician” label wasn’t far off. When he left Yahoo, he became a writer and professional public speaker. It is a good role for him.

I think about this story sometimes when I attend meetings. So many have been such clear time wasters. They consist of PowerPoint presentations thrown together minutes before the speech with bullet points that are dutifully recited by presenter. What is the point of that? We can already read the speech on the screen. There’s no reason to attend.


The only thing I remember from 15 hours of meetings in Moscow

I once sat through fifteen hours of meetings at a department conference in Moscow. The only thing I remember was, “Dina used a really cool slide.” That’s a photo of it at right. It shows the difference between the coronation of Pope Benedict in 2005 and Pope Francis in 2013.

Fifteen hours, eight time zones away, and this is all I remember. Oh, one other thing I remember, the head of the department was so bored he was flipping through Facebook on his phone while people talked. Whether that was his bad or the presenters, I don’t know but it was not a good sign for anyone.

But Sanders’ speech was a good example for me of how presentations can be re-conceptualized as enormous opportunities instead of being chores. Underlying his captivating presentation that looked so effortless was hours of practice and refinement. Everything was configured to make an impression, to give the audience a show. This wasn’t something he threw together to fill an hour. It was an opportunity for him to convince, persuade, inform, and entertain and he nailed it.

I’ve read if you want to blow people away with a speech, practice for an hour for every minute you will be speaking. That might seem like overkill but I guarantee you will destroy in that one minute.

The next presentation you give, devote some serious time to making it a good one. You will be giving respect and honoring those in attendance and they will gladly repay you in kind. They may even create a whole department for you.

The Music to Homeland

One of my favorite stories in the history of free jazz is from one of Ornette Coleman’s first performances. Outraged at the noise he was creating as part of the Silas Green group, the audience rose up, attacked him and destroyed his saxophone.

That’s quite a statement. Although I did not witness it and no footage exists of the incident, I imagine it played out something like the climactic scene in Spinal Tap where, instead of breaking out crowd favorites like “Bitch School” and “Big Bottom”, the band uncorks “Jazz Odyssey” – an epic prog rock experiment to booing fans.

“On the bass, Derek Smalls, he wrote this.”

“On the bass, Derek Smalls. He wrote this.”

These scenes both underscore the saying, “Jazz is more fun to play than to listen to.” That expression explains why musicians who play it often outnumber audiences willing to pay for it. Musicians who want to play it for a living have to be really good to pull it off.

Free jazz does this one better by doing away with of all standard conventions like fixed chords structures and tempos. Freed from all constraints, it sometimes results in things that are completely unlistenable. One sure-fire way to clear out a party is to pop in John Coltrane’s Om album. Give it a shot, it’s the biggest train wreck I’ve heard in my life.

Playing free jazz is a huge risk and you have to be supremely skilled to pull it off. But sometimes this freedom from all constraint results in things that are stunning. There used to be a drummer-saxophonist combo who busked in Harvard Square when I was there. Somehow, using only these two instruments and not playing any identifiable tune, they made music that made you stop and say, “That’s cool.”

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 12.23.25 PMRecently I started binge watching Homeland, which seems to have firmly latched onto a free jazz aesthetic. The opening music grabs you from the start: it’s a David Lynch-like mishmash of free jazz, disembodied quotes about terrorism, and bizarre imagery. Although it runs for too long, it works.

And this track that they play in the first episode of season four, goddamn. If only someday I could play drums along with that. It feels as if at no point does anyone know where it is going or what direction it is going to take. It is a song that wants to tell you something but the message is not clear – it remains dark, mysterious and slippery. The meaning isn’t even clear to the people playing it, they are just channeling it. Seriously, listen to it.

I like to listen to this track late at night, when my work is done and I’m playing online chess while drinking a beer. In our era of instant information at all times, it’s nice to know some things remain impenetrable and mysterious. The music of Homeland is a reminder of that.

DeJargonator is Back

Sometimes I read things online and wonder “Why do people write like this?” Here’s an example:

RAMP (formerly EveryZing) is an advanced Content Optimization SaaS platform providing publishers’ workflow, discovery and engagement solutions to drive monetization of online content to users’ search and browsing behavior. RAMP offers publishers an open, flexible and modular capability to optimize large amounts of content, including text, audio, video and images, within dynamic publishing environments. As a result, publishers’ content becomes positioned for discovery and precise targeting, both on search engines and within publishers’ own websites. Users rely on such precision to discover and engage with content, thereby increasing the commercial viability of content for publishers while curtailing publishing costs.

There is a saying among lawyers, “If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” It’s clear the text above has gone with the latter option.

Just for fun let’s count the buzzwords – “SaaS, Content Optimization, modular capabilities…” Actually, forget it, the whole thing is buzzwords. It’s so heavy and ponderous I can barely make it through the first sentence.

I think it starts in high school where we learn to puff up our writing with garbage like this. In high school this style of writing, because it is incomprehensible, baffles people into submission and gets an A from the teacher because most likely they don’t know what the person is talking about either. It is safer to give the person an A than to ask “What the fuck does ‘advanced Content Optimization SaaS platform providing publishers’ workflow’ mean?”

But imagine a world where instead of using this tortured prose we wrote like we talked. I don’t work for [Company Name] but I’ll take a stab at rewriting the paragraph above into English:

“RAMP (formerly EveryZing) is a software package for web publishers. It allows them to easily manage their content including text, audio, video and images. It also helps with getting their web pages found in search engines.”


Remember the saying “Brevity is the soul of wit.” The shorter the sentence you can use to describe your company, the smarter you are going to look.

One Cool Trick

This skill is in my Useless Human Tricks file. It took a lot of practice but fortunately I had a lot of spare time in college. Also I used to do it all day long while working as a security guard at Canobie Lake Park.

Spinning a quarter across my knuckles has opened so many doors for me. Well worth the time and effort. For example, Bozo the Clown saw me doing it, was impressed, and taught me a sleight of hand trick for making a quarter disappear. True story. I’ll show you that one someday.