Inbox Zero versus Flow Laminar

The world of stream-metaphor workflows in tools like Slack and Github — with strongly emphasized temporal structure, and the realistic probabilistic expectations of chat replacing the illusory deterministic expectations of email — has made me reconsider how I think about information processing. In particular, I’ve moved from an Inbox Zero mental model to a Flow Laminar mental model, as illustrated in this picture.

Inbox Zero, while a great concept within the limits of email and paper (“Clean Desk policy”), is a fundamentally authoritarian high-modernist concept. It creates a strong, bright line between profane and sacred regimes of information, and encourages you to get to illusory control (a clean inbox) by hiding precisely the illegible chaos that’s tempting and dangerous to ignore (if you use folders, you likely have one or more misc folders even if you don’t call them that). This is dangerous because you’re just moving unprocessed chaos from a procrastination zone with strong temporal cues (the Inbox) to a denial zone with broken temporal cues (the set of de facto misc folders).

Breaking or weakening the natural temporal structure of information flow, and the lack of accountability in individually controlled information organization tools, both play a big part in this supposed “processing” from procrastination to denial. At some point, so many of your folders are de facto misc folders that you are living in an information slum you can no longer be in denial about, and you declare email bankruptcy.

Similar phenomena unfold in filesystem folder structures and bookmarking. Industrial age organizations in fact exhibit the same architecture at a social scale (departments are folders for example). All these information architectures allow for the existence of what information architecture satirists (yes, that’s a nonfiction genre that exists) like to call WORN (Write Once, Read Never) or FINO (First-In-Never-Out) information processing blackholes.

GTD — which I think of as a flow-native ideology that was born too early in a containerized information world — helps mitigate the problems of naive Inbox Zero by imposing some anti-misc discipline on you. Gmail tries to help by making the tool itself more stream-like (search over ontologies, tags over folders, threaded conversations). But they only go so far. Both are somewhat paper-native, based on the fundamental assumption that bits can only be in one container at a time, and can be managed independent of the temporal-sequence context in which they are live.

Stream workflows avoid the illusion of perfectability of information flows implicit in notions like Inbox Zero altigether. Flow Laminar is an asymptotic ideal you will never actually reach, because incoming flows always bring in entropy, and while you can impose laminar flow on downstream parts of a stream, the only way to get rid of turbulence is to shut down the flow altogether. This is because streams do not have natural support for WORN/FINO blackholes. In the flow metaphor that would be stagnant pools where unprocessed slime accumulates. In my limited experience, I find that such pools quickly get starved of input because people instinctively realize that “keep things moving” is a sign of health (the fact that stream workflows are social by default and individual by exception, rather than the other way around, plays a big part in achieving this). In order to accumulate anything, you are forced to do what GTD-types call “clarify your intentions” concerning it. The only determinism in a stream system is the determinism you consciously impose without lying to yourself.

Stream workflows do not create artificial barriers between sacred and profane. By retaining temporal structure and resisting the urge to treat bits like atoms that can be moved around between buckets, they keep chaos front-and-center at all times, and don’t allow you to delude yourself that moving from Inbox to misc and pretend you’ve gotten “organized.” They also don’t try to force fit deterministic expectations on probabilistic phenomena. Most importantly, the make it difficult or impossible to create growing misc zones of denial.

The world of stream workflows is very, very young, and it is going to get much more mature and sophisticated. To use streams today, you have to have a strong sense of taste that allows you to distinguish between features that don’t yet exist but should, and features that don’t exist because they would represent backsliding to a more primitive container-based mental model of information processing.

But it’s already worth switching from Inbox Zero to Flow Laminar.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. This is one of the few posts of yours with which I *feel* confused. What happens in Flow Laminar when you miss a task (or sub-project or project) that needs to get done? Don’t you still need a list somewhere with what needs to get done? Or a calendar? Aren’t they authoritarian high-modernist constructs? And aren’t they essential to any kind of stream or flow being able to work over long periods?

    I’m also curious how exactly streams escape the same errors of email. Are you only going to have a single Slack channel for your team or organization? No? In what channel are people going to decide (and be expected to, and encouraged to) post if something pertains to multiple channels? I’ve been on *projects* that gyrated wildly between ’email everyone everything’ and ‘don’t bother everyone with everything in every email’ and it’s not obvious how streams avoid that; or avoid the ‘misc’ trap either. Categorization is hard.

    • I assume you will have a store of tasks for your team (and yourself) into which your tasks move based on one meeting and then are checked for completion in a review meeting. That is assuming some kind of agile workflow which I thought was implicit for any modern way of working.

  2. Jay Dugger says

    I agree with Kenny above. I have had no trouble with inbox zero for many years now, both in my personal life and my work life. Inbox, Action, Hold, archive, and trash have worked fine for my email.

    The post reads as if you’re trying to apply constructal theory to manual information processing, but I just can’t tell from what you have written. I also can’t tell whether you mean this to apply across multiple kinds of information intake or only to email.

  3. To both Kenny and Jay:

    A few points to keep in mind.

    1. The key is to only go deterministic by clarifying your intentions (down to next-action level), not to eliminate things like to-do lists, calendars or email folders for very specific types of things (like drafts of blog posts). Otherwise you are just moving uncertainty around without gradually squeezing it out. It’s authoritarian only if you impose constraints beyond natural ones that exist in the nature of the work, such as a meaningful deadline. Natural constraints add determinacy to a flow of actions/work in a way defined by their own nature, not arbitrarily.

    2. Recognize that many seemingly deterministic things are like pacifiers. They may not actually be functional. Many people maintain lists they never use. Not making such lists in the first place is no loss, since to process you will have to go back to unstructured emails etc. anyway, via search. There is some value to such non-functional artifacts in helping think about possibilities, but it is easy and dangerous to confuse them with scaffolding for actual work.

    3. An emerging pattern for me (and I assume others) is distributed cognition, where actions etc. live as event cue-lists associated with the working objects themselves. If the objects themselves pop into your awareness with sufficient frequency (even if not predictable), you’ll chip away at the attached list of work-cues. For example, a list of pending edits to a complex image being iteratively created with an artist.

    4. A similar pattern is socially distributed cognition, where people you interact with have associated to-do lists that may never need to be written down. You’ll remember when you see them. Or you can attach a to-do list to a profile type object, such as in a flow-paradigm contacts manager.

    5. I find it useful to think of a 2×2 of flow lines with time on the x-axis and certainty on the y-axis. A straight horizontal flow line of event “dots” evolves in time but never evolves in uncertainty. You basically want all flow lines like this to converge towards lower uncertainty events with time in the long run, even if temporarily they go towards higher uncertainty.

  4. I’m tired of this banging on email. It’s a generational thing. I rely on having gigabytes of emails as research tools and discussions. Get over it.

  5. Jiaoning says

    I think I get where you’re coming from Venkat. Two thoughts.

    Knee jerk minimalism might have to do with the experience of moving towards flow when physical objects are less…. I find it easier in this case, but have learned to experience my accumulations of crap when I don’t move house often as a kind of flow (though there will inevitably be a lot of misc piles when there is more stuff, and the associated denial where “cleaning” involves storage rooms, disorganized drawers and closets)

    Second, travel. Could the attraction be the experience almost has to be one of a stream of information? People who try to high modernist plan their travels usually end up either frustrated or hopelessly out of it as their six month trip through India involves three days at each of forty different locations (I met a taiwanese women traveling through India once in this mode. She couldn’t socially connect with anyone physically there — but her utility seemed to be social media and her peer group of privileged and inexperienced young taiwanese women).

  6. I would love to eliminate folders and simply rely on the date and search capability of Outlook. But the authoritarian tools who designed and maintain the county IT system insist that my Inbox is full at 200 emails. They are the same asses who dictate that I must respond to voice mails within 24 hours. On the whole, the policies do nothing more than create a false sense of urgency about matters that are, in the majority of cases, trivial.
    My response has been to rely primarily on my calendar and to schedule no more than five actions per day. For communication I try to use the most ephemeral mode possible, i.e. voice. If something is important enough, it will get memorialized by the other party. I then can rely on that written record to refresh my independent recollection. Rare has been the occasion when this event has not been one of my five daily action items. I have lived experience of the applicability of the Pareto principle.

  7. I’m confused about what laminar means. Does it mean chats instead of emails? Google just brings up links to fluid mechanics.

    • Yes, it’s a fluid mechanics metaphor. Laminar refers to non-turbulent smooth flows without swirly bits or much mixing between parallel lines of flow.

      • Sorry, I guess what I mean is: I don’t understand what this post advocates as an alternative to ‘inbox zero’ or ‘let things pile up in the inbox forever’ or other email/communication strategies.