By Sarah Green
In 1635, England’s Charles and I expanded the island’s mail delivery service to the public — with postage paid by the recipient and based on the weight of the letter. If Great Aunt Henrietta wrote you a 10-page letter asking why you weren’t married yet, throughout most of the country you paid for the privilege of receiving it. It wasn’t until 1840 that the Royal Mail switched to a system in which postage was prepaid by the sender.
I think of this fact often when checking my email. I hope it doesn’t take 200 years to figure out how to make the initiators of these messages — rather than their beleaguered recipients — bear the burden of their sending. But until then, recipients have to manage. And often, we have to manage without the kind of administrative support 20th century executives relied on.
Two years ago, frustrated by this state of affairs, I published a cri de Coeur on this site railing against the lamentable state of inboxes everywhere. Making my despair public had an unanticipated side effect: I started hearing from people who’d discovered tips and tools that could help. In the months since, I’ve experimented with a range of different options. There were several oft-recommended tactics that failed utterly for me, and a few that did work. The way I see it, we’ve got to band together to defeat the email Hydra, so here’s what worked for me and what didn’t. Notably, most of the successful tactics had less to do with email and more to do with general time management — although there were two important exceptions.
I stopped seeing it as separate from my “real work.” In the information economy, email is real work. So I made a conscious decision to stop looking at email as something that took me away from important work and start viewing it as part of building relationships — something that’s really important to me. Once I made this mindset shift, it was easier to make time for email.
I stopped using email to manage my to-do list. This post describes my pre-conversion life pretty well: I’d leave important messages marked as unread to remember to come back to them later (but then they’d get buried by new messages fairly quickly) and I’d email to-do lists to myself. Having tried paper to-do lists and several different task tracking apps (including one that transformed my list into a quest — though I never advanced beyond “Junior Ent Sapling”) I’ve finally settled on Trello, which is super-simple and has a fantastic app/desktop integration.
I stopped allowing days of back-to-back meetings. I used to let my calendar get filled up with meetings; at the end of the day, I would return to an inbox filled with hundreds of unread messages and a sinking feeling in my heart. I tried to fight back by blocking out large chunks of my calendar a couple of times a week, but my coworkers, seeing a 2-hour “meeting” in my calendar would know it was a fake and book me anyway. Now I book 30-min or 1-hour meetings at random times throughout my week, so that I always have about two hours “free” per day. (Try to catch me now, suckers!)
Two weeks before I go on vacation, I put the dates I’ll be away in my email signature. This is a much better way of giving colleagues a heads-up than a mass email message, which few people will read or remember, and it lets me deal with last-minute requests before I leave so that I can fully disconnect while I’m away. When I return, I steadfastly avoid meetings for a couple of days so that I can catch up. Unless you are a sitting head of state, I don’t see why you should have to check your work email from a vineyard in Tuscany, or the back of a burro in the mountains of Patagonia, or sitting by grandma’s Christmas tree. I realize that some people’s bosses are unreasonable about this; part of why I work at HBR is to convince these bosses that they are wrong.
I stopped expecting a human brain to solve a problem created by technology. I used to feel bad — really bad — when important emails would get lost in the impenetrable wall of unimportant near-spam that took over my inbox every day. (No, I do not think HBR should publish an article on the start-up selling a toilet seat for cats, but thank you, Ms. Publicist, for suggesting it — three times.) I finally accepted that this was a technology problem that required a technological solution. After looking into a few options, I installed SaneBox, a filtering system that uses an algorithm to decide which emails are the most important. Those are shunted into your inbox, which suddenly looks much less cluttered; the rest go into a “SaneLater” folder. I go through the SaneLater folder every other day to make sure nothing crucial is languishing in there. I also started using Unroll.me, which combines your newsletter subscriptions into one daily digest and unsubscribes you from the lists you don’t want to be on.
I use my smartphone much more. (This is the “half” tactic.) While most of the published advice I’ve read on managing email urged me to avoid relying on my phone, I’ve found that it helps me craft quicker responses that get right to the point (in case you haven’t noticed already, I have a tendency towards the verbose). And since it says “sent from my phone” in the signature, people aren’t as likely to be offended by brevity.
What didn’t work:
Checking email at certain times of the day only. This frequently suggested tactic has never worked for me. When I’ve tried, I end up reading and answering email straight through until my next appointed “check-in” time; or I get left out of important online conversations happening among my colleagues between my check-in times; or I miss timely messages.
Strategic use of out-of-office messages. I’ve tried putting up an auto-response if there’s a day I really am booked in meetings or when I’m simply buried in deadlines and trying to get manuscripts out the door; my recipients found this defensive. For longer breaks, I’ve also tried the trick of saying, “Please re-send your message when I am back in the office on such-and-such date,” another widely cited tactic. Recipients found that arrogant.
Keeping emails incredibly short. It’s one thing to be concise; it’s another to omit both salutation and sign-off — and punctuation. As an editor, sending these sorts of emails (“sounds great thanks”) bothered me on a personal level. Did I really not have time to say “Hello, Professor Fitz-Herbert” or insert a comma? Really? These super-brief emails made me feel icky. I also think they made me sound like kind of an asshole.
Aiming for Inbox Zero.
I think we will look back on the brief craze for Inbox Zero the way we now look back at the 80s aerobics craze: evidence of a mad and ultimately warping desire for perfection. Inboxes are not meant to be at zero any more than women’s upper thighs are meant to look like aluminum tubes. I now aim to keep the unread messages in my inbox to the double-digits. When things start ballooning up, I sigh, get into to work a little earlier, and hammer away at them until they’re back down to size — the same way I reluctantly (but temporarily) switch from pastrami to arugula when my favorite jeans feel tight.
Following the “only handle it once,” rule. This is a really difficult one for most knowledge workers, not only editors. Thinking takes time. Sometimes even answering a simple yes-or-no question means asking for other people’s input, doing background reading, or conducting a bit of research. I can usually make those judgment calls fairly efficiently — or else I wouldn’t be good at my job — but I can’t do it obeying the “OHIO” rule.
Setting up elaborate folder systems. How can a person who barely has time to read her email possibly have time to sort it? That’s what the search box is for.
Asking other people to change their behavior.
I did try asking people to put key information in the subject line, use the Red Exclamation Point of Doom if — and only if — it was truly an urgent message, or to send me one email with all of their questions rather than five short emails each with a different query. Despite the efforts of a few (which I appreciated!), by and large this was a predictably Quixotic quest.
Complaining. Treating email like the enemy made important people hesitant to email me; I’d be left out of important conversations because, “Sarah’s always so busy.” Instead of being able to dip in and out of the discussion based on what I thought was important, people started turning off the spigot. I was not a fan of that, as it turned out.
My reformation is far from complete.
Messages still slip through the cracks. A bad flu messes up my entire carefully constructed system. And I still get irritated when people send a second email “just to make sure you got my email!” — especially if 24 hours haven’t elapsed since the first message. (With tools like Signals, no one needs to ask that question anymore.) But since becoming more disciplined about managing my email, I find I get fewer of those messages.
There is an old saying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: to drink from a firehose, you need to use a straw. If email is the firehose, apps like Signals, Trello, SaneBox, and others are the straws. And modern missivists can at least be thankful that, unlike the letter-writers of 17th century Britain, we have keyboard shortcuts for “copy” and “paste.”