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Busyness is a Kind of Debt


My friend Cait and I have been exchanging zeros. I posted a screenshot of my newly empty Gmail inbox, and challenged her to do the same, and she did. Now we’re competing to get to zero as often as possible.

Email has become almost a breeze for me (after struggling with it for years) due to a discovery I made during my extreme decluttering campaign: having zero clutter is an entirely different experience than having a little clutter. The psychological effect of reducing any type of mess to zero is profound. It feels like a noisy fan has shut off.

Now I love the feeling of being at zero, and I never want to be far from it. Every neglected possession, unanswered email or open browser tab is like a little hook in your brain. There isn’t a huge difference in how it feels to have six of these hooks in your brain versus having eighty, but there is a vast difference between having some and having zero.

The decluttering post was an international mega-hit— 8,800 12,000 Facebook Likes and counting—which surprised me initially because it seems so pedestrian: arranging items in containers and tossing ugly clothes. But I think most people realize that it’s not really about beautifying your shelves. It’s about turning your home into a better habitat for the mind, one that minimizes the abandoned, the unfinished, and the out-of-place—and creating a lifestyle with fewer “mental fishhooks” snagging your attention.

Whatever is normal to us becomes invisible, no matter how counterproductive, and we’ve simply become accustomed to tracking too many ongoing concerns in our heads. 

Living in the red

We use the word “minimalism” to describe a conscious effort to reduce physical and mental clutter by owning fewer things. But maybe minimalism isn’t so much a trendy subculture as it is a return to the kind of environment our minds are best suited for. Imagine explaining to most of history’s human beings that “minimalists” are those unusual people who have reduced their possessions to a few hundred and their time commitments to a few dozen.

As information and entertainment become more abundant, mental clarity becomes a more unusual experience. To get it back, we need to become unusually stingy with our time and attention commitments, by either finally fulfilling them or finally dropping them, instead of letting them pile up unresolved.

These unresolved commitments are what David Allen called “open loops” in his zillion-selling productivity Bible Getting Things Done, and he says open loops are exactly what stress is made of. Part of us might realize this, but it’s still fairly normal to drift miles from “zero” in several areas of clutter at once. In our over-committed, under-focused culture, it’s normal for one’s attention be overextended.

Another way to think about it is this:

If attention is a kind of currency, our culture has a habit of living in debt. We’re trying to buy too much with what we have, and it creates problems—stress, distraction, inefficiency—that outweigh the benefits of all those purchases. Just as consumer debt is the consequence of buying more than our means can cover, our overflowing inboxes and unread bookmarks are evidence that we are chronically overspending in the attention department.

Just like money, attention is limited, and by spreading it around too freely we accumulate too many expenses, bear needless debts, and pay too much interest, in the form of stress and extra work.

Any time you can cut loose an attention-draining commitment, it’s like cutting a household expense. Cutting out your weekday-morning Reddit-surf might be like canceling cable: you think it’s a solemn sacrifice until you do it, then you wouldn’t go back to it even if it were free.

Paying it off

There are commitments you can’t or don’t want to cut though, such as email, your primary work duties, and household tidying. Any time you get one of these going concerns to zero—namely by putting all your possessions away or processing everything in your inbox—it’s like paying the balance off your credit card.

Most people can understand the absurdity of letting a credit card bill go unpaid for no reason. The bill never shrinks with time, it only grows, while the value of what you bought with it remains the same, regardless of what you end up paying. Yet we don’t have the same efficiency with our attention. We often let the house get messy enough that it takes a whole weekend to get it back to zero, or let the email pile up until you need to prefix every reply with an apology.

It seems like keeping your inboxes (and household clutter, which is essentially a different form of inbox) close to zero is way too much work for most people to manage, but it is always less work. After all, the work either has to be done eventually anyway—and the sooner you do it the less there is of it—or it doesn’t have to be done at all.

Of course, you can’t always be at zero—you may have gotten a new email while reading this—but there is something to be said for always living close to it. I’d rather stay up till midnight getting everything to absolute zero at least once a week than just get “close enough” occasionally, never achieving the clarity and confidence that only appears at zero.

To live near zero, however, you have to get there in the first place, just as you have to pay off your debt before you can attempt to live debt-free. For household clutter this means doing KonMari or some other structured decluttering, and for email it means sitting down with a pot of coffee and going through it all until you see the empty box.

The idea of attending to our commitments sooner rather than later obviously isn’t a new one, but framing it as “getting to zero” has made my routine work much more attractive. After years of hating email and tidying, I am actually enjoying them both, because the sweet bliss of reaching zero is always so close.

Of course, smart people have been employing the number zero for far longer than I have:

Cait Flanders realized that while she bookmarked websites all the time, she never looked at her bookmarks, so she deleted them all and never looked back.

Derek Sivers had enough of superfluous commitments, and decided he’s done saying yes to requests on his time—it’s either “No” or “HELL YEAH!”

I had a conversation with Jonathan Verrecchia a few weeks ago about managing time and attention better, and he introduced me to the beauty of the number zero as a value to live by. He’s aiming for all sorts of zeros: zero phone notifications, zero un-backed-up files, zero desktop clutter, as well as keeping his home looking AirBnB-ready. (As I was writing the draft of this article, he published these ideas on a tidy new site called Zeromalist.)

Procrastinatory habits have a certain comfort, but they can’t compete with the liberating feeling of zero. I’m happily in love with zero and I would crawl over hot coals to stay close to it.

Doing the better, healthier thing always seems to come down to forgoing short-term rewards for bigger, longer-term rewards. But what’s so brilliant about the staying-near-zero approach is that it’s driven by its powerful short-term reward. When it’s within reach, it’s too good to pass up.

Cleaning up a big mess is much more of a grind than cleaning up an equivalent quantity of small messes. Putting away the first few of a hundred out-of-place books, garments and papers is never very fun, but doing the last few is always glorious.

The solution seems so obvious now: always be doing the last few.


Photo by Hans Poldoja

Arthur September 28, 2015 at 1:04 am

Attention is your life. Stop giving it away. Like you mention, people buy too much stuff with their hard earned money. Why work so hard just to turn around and give it away to any store selling anything? Great post David!

David Cain September 28, 2015 at 9:00 am

Thanks Arthur. Our attention really is all we have, and it’s always being paid to something.

Duncan Bay September 28, 2015 at 1:06 am

I adore inbox and tab zero. If I really need tabs saved for later, I collapse them into onetab (chrome extension) and restore or delete them once a day/week – it allows you to focus on one thing at a time though.

I don’t agree with zero bookmarks though. Search results change over time, and anything I need to reference for work I need bookmarked. However, I’ve learnt not to save to categories, and not to look AT my bookmarks list. I simply add a few keywords/tags to the end of the bookmark title when saving, and then if I need something that I believe I have relevant bookmarks for – I’ll do a search based on keywords (Dewey chrome ext is good for this). Very little mental drain by searching rather than organising (same idea really as archiving in email and searching later).

David Cain September 28, 2015 at 9:02 am

Yeah the point isn’t that bookmarks (or anything else mentioned here as an example) is bad and we should get rid of them, but that we should be aware of what is soaking up our attention and how much it’s actually doing for us. Often we continue doing something just because we’re used to doing it.

Sarah September 28, 2015 at 1:08 am

I get where you are coming from on the idea of zero – I am a fan of the empty inbox and decluttered house as well – but I have to disagree with the overall message. For me, the enemy is not necessarily the clutter itself, either mental or physical, but constantly devoting attention to being on the lookout for it. The problem, and the anxiety, stems from constantly being in cleaning mode. This leads to disruptions in my work when a new email pops in or I notice another dusty surface around the house. Recently, setting a single time for cleaning for example, has significantly reduced the worried thoughts about minor disarray and my desires to search for it. So too little procrastination could also be an enemy.

Jonathan V. September 28, 2015 at 4:34 am

You are absolutely right. Being overly anxious about keeping everything at zero at all times is definitely an unhealthy and disruptive habit. But even around zero, there’s some balance to find, as paradoxal as this might be. You should try to stick to zero on the medium and long-term, and as a global guideline, but aiming for constant perfection will just drive you insane. A bit of dust is fine, and you will eventually clean it when cleaning time comes! About inbox zero, I personally get there before working, then close Chrome completely to work without getting disrupted. You can also postpone a whole bunch of emails or tasks to later if that bugs you. Inbox by Gmail is amazing for this.

Katia September 28, 2015 at 11:15 am

I agree with Jonathan’s approach. Obsessive decluttering is its own kind of busyness. We need to set our own standards and boundaries that work for us on an individual basis.

David Cain September 28, 2015 at 9:04 am

I definitely am not recommending always being in cleaning mode, in fact it’s about reducing the time spent in that mode. It’s less work when you do it less often. I take about ten minutes a day to put everything in my house away.

Seanna September 30, 2015 at 10:43 am

I find it more important to be present in whatever you are working on than obsessing on zero. If you are with your kids, be with them 100%, not writing an e-mail and then attending to them. If you are writing for the next hour, be writing and not procrastinating on other sites. If you are catching up with someone, that person should be the most important person in that room. Laziness in the enemy of this system, however encourages us not to develop obsessively clean tendencies.

David Cain October 2, 2015 at 10:00 am

People are quick to use the word “obsessing” whenever someone puts an unusual amount of emphasis on something. Getting clutter down to zero more frequently is simply a better, more efficient way to do what everyone is already doing anyway. There’s no conflict between being on top of something and being present for what’s happening in your life, and in fact the exact opposite is true. The more you let things slide, the more your mind is somewhere else.

There’s no need to take zeroing to the point of rudeness, such as answering emails at dinner. In fact, clearing email more often means less time spent doing it overall, and therefore less reason to be doing it when you should be doing something else.

This misconception is common. Deviate from the norm, even in a completely healthy and sensible way, and people call you obsessed. People who eat healthy and go to the gym regularly are “obsessed” in the eyes of many who don’t. Someone who keeps meticulous accounting records is said to be obsessed, even though they are spending the least possible time on accounting, because they avoid the long month-end catch-up periods everyone else is doing.

Mike September 28, 2015 at 4:02 am

I largely agree with this. I very much love increasing the amount of empty space in my home and reducing unnecessary items in my life. But as another person commented, being hung up on clutter can cause constant low level tension. If I am correct, your argument David is that if you are efficient in managing your belongings (and emails etc), then you avoid the tension that clutter brings. I think that philosophy works well if you live alone or live with someone who shares your values. However, if you live with an untidy partner and an incredibly messy toddler, as I do, getting to zero just isn’t possible. In my case this is largely because I share a space with other people who actually enjoy clutter.

Now, although I deal with this chaos by minimizing my own clutter, I am deeply convinced that there is value in mentally letting go of your concerns. .Rather than clutter itself always being a source of angst and tension, it might very well be our attitude toward it that causes us grief.

David Cain September 28, 2015 at 9:05 am

What’s possible for you depends on your circumstances, so find zero where you can. An untidy partner can’t stop you from doing your email.

Karen J September 28, 2015 at 12:43 pm

“it might very well be our attitude toward it that causes us grief” – So very true, Mike!
Much like you, I have a roommate who loves her ‘stuff’, and multiple people in her life with the attention span of gnats… I’ve just realized that it makes it hard for me to ‘leave the house’, and then hard to come home, because my attention *will* be fractured by other people’s messes, even before I can start to do anything with what’s happened in my day.
Adjusting my field of attention is an option, to a certain extent.

Elisa Winter September 28, 2015 at 4:47 am

Love to brag… my inbox is at zero every day. I have three inboxes currently and have taken first steps to bring that back to one, iCloud only. I have unfriended unfollowed and unsubscribed nearly everything over the last couple of months. (Not Raptitude!) My smart phone doesn’t ring and notifies me of nothing. I learned how to shut it all off. Yeah. I love that I have processed all this. But I reserve the right to pile things up again, to let it all get out of control…. and then process down to zero again. It’s good clean fun… like a roller coaster.

Elisa Winter September 28, 2015 at 4:58 am

Seriously — I have just read Zeromalist list. I am already there. At zero. Yes. I am bragging!! :-) (It also really helps that my husband and I have moved our residence 6 times in 20 years. I miss all the books and albums I have given away, though. I wish I had never done that.)

David Cain September 28, 2015 at 9:07 am

*high five!*

Justin Copperpot September 28, 2015 at 8:12 am

Everyone here nodding along with this post saying, “Amen” and yet none of you has a flip phone. You’re all getting Facebook notifications, and Twitter notifications, and Pinterest notifications, and dopamine drip notifications and whatever else on your smart phones, and you can’t figure out why your brain is exhausted. Maybe those smartphones aren’t so smart after all? :)


David Cain September 28, 2015 at 9:09 am

I think the default notifications on smart phones are probably pretty disruptive for most of us, but it depends on the person and what they do. You can turn it all off.

Free to Pursue September 30, 2015 at 8:11 am

I couldn’t agree more. My phone notifications…and the ringer are on permanent off. This drives some family members and friends crazy but, for me, the devices needlessly interrupt the flow of my life. They cause constant hiccups in our day but only because we let them.

I’ve even changed the number of apps on my home screen so that I don’t absentmindedly check updates. I have to consciously go looking for them. That, and turning off notifications, has materially changed how I use my device.

Burak September 28, 2015 at 9:02 am

Joyfully read! :)
I especially liked your comparison about attention/currency.

I also had a huge clutter related to social media. The way I ruthlessly went to zero in social media was to cut them off almost altogether. Here is what I did (without the details):
I only use facebook 5 minutes a month (yes, consistently) only to check invitations, and ignore the rest. I also use a tool in my browser which let me only 10 minutes a month but thankfully, I don’t need it anymore. More importantly, I don’t have the app on my phone over a year by now. No twitter, nor instagram until an important link takes me there for at most 5 minutes again. No apps on the phone either.

Now, I can tell that this was one of the best practical moves I have done in the recent years (a better one one was the removal of TV 5 years ago).

Now, it’s time for me to go zero in inbox, chrome tabs and file arrangement in my PCs. Thanks for reminding that.

David Cain September 28, 2015 at 9:12 am

I like your approach here… looking at what you really get out of a platform and reducing your usage to that. Lots of people get rid of Facebook, claiming that on the balance it’s not worth it. But you can just eliminate the wasteful part of it, and use it for invitations/events, etc.

Each person definitely has a different relationship with each platform. I use Facebook daily but I can scan through my feed in about two minutes a day, and then I’m ready to move on.

Elaine Estes September 28, 2015 at 9:15 am

After my husband’s death 6 years ago, I had the momentous task of getting rid of a hundred Beta tapes (trashed), LPs, Laser discs, boxes of model trains, VHS tapes, over 200 books on theology, about as many science fiction, and more on aerophysics, history, Tolkien, and I can’t remember what else. I threw away papers from his college days (40 years ago), and just stuff he had collected since we had been in the house we were in for 12 years. I downsized from a three bedroom house to a two bedroom condo. I can not tell you how much happier I am! I am still weeding out a few of his things and mine a year later. My life is simpler and I have more time to enjoy friends and life. But if I had tried to do it all in a week even, I would have gone nuts! Slow and steady gets the job done. If I had tried to take on all those items at once I would have become overcome and bored and stopped. Perhaps it is better to set zero as a goal and work steadily at it. In comparison to what I lived with all those years I am living at near enough to zero now. I have the things I treasure and those are what’s important. Nibbling away at what I lived with was the best way for me to simplify. Great article.

David Cain September 28, 2015 at 9:19 am

We have a lot working against us in the modern age, and a big part of it is how easily we accumulate tons and tons of stuff, and how unaccustomed many of us are to getting rid of any of it. If you have years worth of extra stuff it will take months to get rid of. I have been keeping my stuff low for years and it still took a lot of work to do my experiment.

Beta tapes! Those are a third of the way to antique status!

mike September 28, 2015 at 11:54 am

I must say, I’d do it differently.

In our house there is not a closet filled, a bed underneath unused, the attic filled, and it’s just the two of us.

My small closet holds the safe, clothes hamper, trash can and it’s still uncluttered compared to her walk-in closet.

I could easily hire a huge dumpster or two and throw away all items. Forget about giving away stuff, I abhor clutter.

Shane September 28, 2015 at 9:38 am

Quick question:

When you say “bring your inbox to zero”, do you mean no unread messages, or do you actually delete the messages?

David Cain September 28, 2015 at 9:45 am

In Gmail you can “Archive” them, which makes them disappear, but retains them so that you can find them later if you search. So receive them, reply (or take whatever action in response) and archive them until there’s nothing in there.

David September 28, 2015 at 11:53 am

You answered a question I was just about to ask. My inbox is full of useful stuff but it’s all archive material. I am often in “unread 0” mode but seeing a blank tab like that makes me want to go through and archive/delete the last 8 years.

David Cain September 28, 2015 at 12:35 pm

David, if you use Gmail I highly recommend archiving the stuff. It’s all still accessible, it just separates emails you need for reference from the ones you still need to act on.

Burak October 2, 2015 at 6:55 am


Nikki September 28, 2015 at 9:39 am

We just did this for one of our graduate courses as an assignment. We used a method from a book but were allowed to alter it for ourselves. The author used the same concept of attention. Every little piece of information sent will steal a piece of your soul if you let it.

After the first big clean-out, I felt freedom. I also know there are some unneeded lurkers in folders. Reflexive reassessment is the best friend of a working minimalist.

Love your work, thanks for showing us to ourselves.

mike September 28, 2015 at 11:40 am

I love this idea, getting to zero. And I agree with it. The zero idea go much farther than email and items around the house.

How about the food we eat? Being vegan, I find there’s this beautiful elegance/simplicity to the diet. Not only is it simple, but healthy too. Recently I heard a lecture (this guy wrote a book called the Blue Zones) about people who live in certain areas of the world live long lives. All Blue zones were non meat eaters.

Also the case for global warming. If the world went plant based, global warming would start to reverse.

And animal welfare. My god, the suffering we inflict on animals because we like the taste.

Samuel Mandell September 28, 2015 at 1:29 pm

I just finished reading Getting Things Done a few weeks ago and have been trying to implement his system. The biggest shift for me has been asking the simple question “what’s the next action?” for any particular piece of incoming information.

With email this has been HUGE as my old tendency was to read an email and just think “I’ll deal with this later” without ever specifying what dealing with it meant. Now if I get an email that I want to respond to, and it’ll take longer than two minutes, I add it to my Email section of my todo list and archive the email. So I’ve captured the work item associated and moved on. I’ll then sit down and usually reply to a string of emails at once.

I love it.

David Cain September 29, 2015 at 12:43 pm

Many people swear by GTD but I have never been able to stay on top of it. It’s just a little too complicated. But I learned a ton from that book that I still use, including “What’s the next action?” and the collect-process-organize-review-do paradigm. I don’t have context lists, just a single list, and I make a daily to-do list, which David Allen recommends against. Great book, but be willing to adapt it your own way if you have trouble with it.

Rose Costas September 29, 2015 at 2:23 am

Thanks for this reminding. I totally agree with you. I work on making sure I get to zero every day if possible and because of that I feel free and never clutter. If i don’t then I am all in disarray.

Amy September 29, 2015 at 8:24 pm

This made me think of your old post “You Must Go Do the Next Thing” which for whatever reason I read again not too long ago. It sounds like you were trying to make peace back then with the perpetually non-zero state of “the ‘stuff’ in life”. https://www.raptitude.com/2010/11/you-must-go-do-the-next-thing/

So, in your more recent quests for zero have you ever reached or tried to reach “to-do zero” or “all stuff zero”? Do you think it’s possible or desirable?

David Cain September 30, 2015 at 9:33 am

No, I have never reached “to-do zero” and it’s probably not possible. Unless you don’t have any desires in life there is always a ton more to do, way more than you can ever do.

The kind of zero I’m talking about is zero “un-processed” inputs, which means I’ve read every email and decided what to to about it (reply, act on, etc). But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve taken all those actions. I always have a running to-do list and it will never be done. Processing everything in the inbox leaves few unpleasant surprises, because after you’ve read and decided how to act on a message, you at least know roughly what is required of you and when it’s required, so nothing has a chance to creep up and explode.

Free to Pursue September 30, 2015 at 8:17 am

The fundamental idea behind this post seems to get to the essence of why I ditched my calendar. It was full of noisy obligations (should, could) that weren’t fundamental to how I want to live my life. I say “yes” only to what I really want to spend time on (learning, playing, creating, friends, family).

I need to apply my ability to simplify how I spend my time to my surroundings. Chaos barely describes how I feel about my clutter.

Thanks for nudging me outside my comfort zone yet again David.

David Cain September 30, 2015 at 9:33 am

More flies in the ointment!

Tawcan September 30, 2015 at 9:19 am

I love the feeling of 0 unread email. Having just came back from a 2 week vacation I was faced with thousands of emails in my work inbox. It was satisfying seeing the unread number to 0 after a few days.

Kurt September 30, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Working toward zero has lots of appeal to me. On your specific example of the email Inbox, I definitely feel calmer the closer the number of emails gets to zero. Right now it’s at thirteen, which is pretty good for me. Also, like Cait, I bookmark or otherwise save stuff for later all the time–I never get back to this stuff. Why am I pretending otherwise?

David Cain October 2, 2015 at 9:51 am

Go for zero!

I find a crucial piece is learning not to use email as a place to store things. Many people use their email as a to-do list, and a calendar. What I do now is go through every email and decide what is to be done with it, then I archive it. If an action needs to be taken, I put it on my list or my calendar, and archive the email. If we leave read emails in the box, waiting until all associated actions are taken, it never gets to zero. The best way is to handle each email once, as you read it. Then it goes in the archive.

Here’s a talk by Merlin Mann on processing email this way:


Cait Flanders October 2, 2015 at 2:26 pm

We’re fooling ourselves, Kurt! No, I’m only teasing, friend. :) I think we bookmark things with the best of intentions. We do it when we “favourite” things on Twitter, “love” pins on Pinterest, save links to ideas/stories/projects we want to come back to… and, at the time, we might really feel like it’s something that will interest us “soon”! But, the simple truth is, it doesn’t interest us enough to dedicate time to it today, which is why we are “saving” it for later (and later almost never comes). I’ve just let go of the whole idea of “saving things for later”, so I can instead live in the moment and focus on what matters now. When I want to try a new recipe or get a book recommendation or even learn a new skill, Google will always be there to help me. ;)

Shannon D. October 3, 2015 at 8:13 pm

Thank you for giving me a push to stop bookmarking “cool” things i.e. clutter! When I really need it I will find it again!

Pete Alexopoulos October 1, 2015 at 4:54 pm

I definitely understand what you mean when you say attention is a kind of currency. If our most precious resource is our daily thoughts, we can’t afford to pay our attention to needless things.

This aim for zero approach might have greater meaning. From a scientific standpoint, in the grand scheme of things, I’ve heard if you were to add up all the positive and negative energy in the universe that it would equal zero.

Edwin Top October 2, 2015 at 7:03 am

Good article. Well this means I am going to have to unsubscribe from your newsletter to lower the clutter in my mailbox.


David Cain October 2, 2015 at 9:47 am

Heh… by that logic you could also reduce your household clutter by moving out.

John Norris October 3, 2015 at 2:55 am

Thanks David. I tried zero inbox for a few days but decided I prefer to see a few in there so I’ve gone back to that.

I do use Google bookmarks which allows multiple tags (much better than browser folders).



Chris October 13, 2015 at 8:56 am

I don’t know if you’ve tried it but you really need to get over to Inbox by Google. Revolutionized how I do my e-mail. It basically combines e-mail with a to do list. SO you can snooze e-mails, add reminders, or even just push to later in the day. SO I get something that I need to do when I get home, I”ll snooze it to “evening” which is 6pm. 6pm rolls around and it pops back up like a new e-mail. You can even mark stuff as “done” too. It’s just fantastic and free!

The Usurper October 13, 2015 at 3:28 pm

Interesting article. Ive personally always aimed for a zero inbox since I first started using email. It is an important concept though. I find it interesting that you would be willing to stay up until midnight on declutter emails. Myself, I value sleep far too much to even consider staying up late on admin tasks. But I guess we all operate differently.

Does using electronics late at night affect your sleep?

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