My boss stopped by my desk to chat, and as we talked she glanced over my shoulder at my computer screen. She squinted, focusing on my Inbox. “Do you know you’ve got over 1,000 unread emails? Wow, I could never stand that.”
Over 1,000? Was it really that many? Embarrassed, I mumbled something about being so busy with a project that I hadn’t had time to keep up with cleaning my Inbox. The truth was, I thought defensively, I had my own strategy with email. I attacked them in batches, organized by categories that made sense to me. As it turned out, this meant that some items got opened and handled immediately: like those relating to the video shoot I was working on with a bunch of kids that was fun and interesting; or a lunch invitation with a favorite donor. But other emails were ignored, remaining unread until some future moment of anticipated free time, such as correspondence having to do with employee surveys that “will only take 30 minutes.” Strings of back-and-forth emails about a staff member’s farewell party
including location changes and potluck sign-ups remained unopened, as did emails with subject lines that implied paragraph’s-worth of instructions on how to navigate the latest updates to the HR timesheet website.
Before my current job, the positions I’d held had involved working remotely for small entrepreneurial ventures. I hadn’t worked in an actual office for years, and never for an organization with complex regulatory demands or with such a large staff. Now, each day, my inbox would go from zero to 100. And before long, that starting point was no long zero and many emails remained unread.
How can there be so many emails? Under the pressure of time, amplified by the number of people involved in each project and decision, and exacerbated by the fact that everyone is too busy to actually speak in person to their colleagues, email has become the nearly singular form of office communication. Correspondence may balloon when someone’s email is perhaps not understood in its first iteration, leading to differing opinions, general confusion, and complications created by those who jump in late to the conversation. The email firestorm is multiplied when the list of people on the “Send To” list hit “Reply All.”
At times, lost in a wilderness of emails, I stopped by a senior manager’s office to clarify which new training videos I was required to view, for example, before facing termination. Or, what was the latest executive decision-making tree, reporting matrix or emergency-response color code update? “Check your Inbox. It’s all in emails that were sent to ‘All Staff,’” was often the reply.
For some of my colleagues, one of the greatest deterrents to taking vacation was the knowledge of what would be waiting in their Inboxes when they returned. After a one-week absence, they’d have to hunker down over their computer screens for 48 hours, sighing “I’ll get back to you later in the week, when I’ve gone through all my emails.”
There are some solutions to email overwhelm. One of the preferred is to simply forward them. If I were to sort the emails in my inbox there would be an entire category under “Fwd: fwd: fwd:” with mysterious subject lines like “CDPHE – CPED – Summit CCC – 2018-19 Notification. Urgent.” If the sender is not too busy when forwarding on an email for someone else to deal with, they might add the illuminating message “FYI.” More likely the email is forwarded on without comment for YOU, the recipient, to figure out.
Other alternatives are to create an elaborate set of folders in which to store emails, by topic, for a future moment (which will never come) when you will have more time to review them.
And finally, if you are really desperate to wipe your Inbox clean of the onslaught of emails, you can delete them.
Once my boss had called me out on my inattention to work email, I couldn’t help but wonder what my personal email situation might look like. I was probably not paying adequate attention to my email Inbox on the personal front, either.
I thought I had set up a formidable defense against unwanted junk. Some time ago, I had created one email for personal correspondence with family and friends, and another for freelance work projects. Then, as freelance work multiplied, I’d created individual Gmail accounts for each of the businesses I was involved with. Google then organized each of these accounts into three categories. The result was, there were now four email addresses, each amassing – along with a modest amount of actual business and personal correspondence – its own hoard of advertising, special offers, scary solicitations booby-trapped with attachments that should never be opened, reminders to send birthday wishes to people I wasn’t sure I knew on social media, and just plain spam.
With 12 streams of emails to view, sort, file or delete I had managed to accumulate 30,000 unread emails.
It was time to consult the experts and stop making excuses. According to Harvard Business Review, one successful executive “uses all of her downtime to clean her email Inbox.” That is not exactly how I envision spending my non-working hours. Next. Experts at MIT determined that filing emails actually makes no difference at all to productivity. That sounded suspiciously like my current approach. Next. At last I came upon the ideal recommendation: an article in Fast Company advised creating a new file called “OLD Inbox.” In this way all those unattended emails (read or unread) could be satisfyingly filed away, leaving a clean, empty current Inbox and a feeling of self-satisfied professionalism.
That sounded like the perfect solution to me.
This piece appeared in the Summit Daily, Thursday April 25, 2019