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Inbox Zero Is a Fantasy. I'm Trying for Calendar Zero Instead.

You can't control who reaches out or asks for your time. But you can control who you give it to.

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This story appears in the March 2022 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Remember when “inbox zero” was everyone’s goal? The idea was that, someway and somehow, it was possible to clear your thoughts by clearing your inbox.

As I write this, I have 131 unopened emails waiting for me. Inbox zero is a fantasy, and I accept that. I have come to believe that we should not define our success by (or tie our sanity to) things we cannot control ourselves. If anyone can email us — you could email me right now! — then the number of emails in our inbox at any given moment is out of our control.

Related: Own Your Time: 8 Essential Calendar Management Skills

So instead of shooting for inbox zero, I have shifted my goal to something that is within my grasp. It’s called “Calendar Zero.”

This is my term for a day without meetings. It is a day to do deep work, to think without interruptions, and then, when the time comes, to take care of your body and mind as well.

Sound impossible? I assure you, Calendar Zero does not come naturally to me either. My instinct is to pack my days with meetings, deadlines, and tasks, with one thing crashing into the next. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I feel a kind of sick pride when I have a headache at the end of the day — as if I used my brain to its capacity. But a few months ago, a happy accident occurred: I looked at my calendar and, by pure luck, I had absolutely no appointments that day.

I stared at this open calendar with wonder, like a baby seeing the night sky.

Then I realized what it meant: I could do the kind of work that is only possible without interruptions. That big project I’d only glancingly tackled? Today it gets done. That big idea I’d had no time to explore? Now I could think it through. By 2 p.m., I’d accomplished so much that I went for a long bike ride — and felt no guilt or worry! As I was breezing down the road, it occurred to me: I need to do this more often.

But I couldn’t just wait around for more happy accidents. This would require proactive action. I looked for the next appointment-free day on my calendar. It was weeks away. I blocked it off and wrote “no meetings day.” As the day grew nearer, I guarded it fiercely.

Related: How Time Management Can Help You Avoid Burnout

Are other people doing this? I wondered. I surveyed my LinkedIn followers and learned that 62% block off a day at least once a month. Some told me they do it weekly. One guy, Third Nature founder Brian Helfman, said he blocks off a full week once a quarter. “It’s like a staycation, but I’m more productive than any normal week,” he wrote. But many others said they try to do it and often fail or forget.

That’s why I’m telling you about this now.

Even the most hard-charging among us must admit: Greatness does not happen when it’s squeezed in between meetings. And the meetings themselves sure don’t produce greatness. Here, instead, are the three truths we must remember:

1. We cannot confuse productivity with a packed schedule.

2. There is no award for being the busiest.

3. If we do not claim the time we need, others will claim it from us.

Unlike inbox zero, which requires constant maintenance and oversight, Calendar Zero allows you to start small. You, like me, may not be able to imagine a meeting-free day every week, or even every two weeks. Fine; do what you can and build from there. Prove to yourself how valuable it can be. Weave it into your habits.

Related: Don't Cling Too Tightly to Your Goals. The Greatest Opportunities Are Often Unexpected.

Start like this: Pull out your calendar right now and look for the next day that’s yet to be booked. Can you block it off? If yes, do it. If not, find the next one. Do not stop until you’ve written those magic words in your calendar: “no meetings day.”

That is your day. You deserve it. You will do great things with it. Don’t let anyone take it from you.

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