The insurmountable pile of unread email in our inboxes is a shared nightmare. So why aren't we doing something about it?
Whether you use email in a professional or personal capacity, we all wake up every morning to the same obscene number between brackets - letting us know exactly how much unread email we can look forward to spending time dealing with. With more or less diligence, the most important of the lot gets sorted away. Maybe one or two fall through a crack in our attention. Maybe something that demands action gets postponed, only to never be remembered again. But we know that eventually the inbox is going to fill up again. It gets so we start to envy Sysyphus and his comparatively simpler task of rolling a boulder uphill.
No, it's not just you. A McKinsey report found that among American corporate workers, up to 28% of their work time is spent reading and answering emails. A Radicati Group report (PDF) claims that this translates to 105 emails per day, on average. Even if you have a separate email account for your personal stuff, the problem remains: chances are you are cursed with newsletters, third party email notifications and the standard email forwards from friends and family.
Unlike Sysyphus, however, we cannot point to a vengeful god as the author of our punishment. This is all our responsibility, and so must be the cure. In this article we'll try to list some general tips for better inbox processing, and divide those under two categories: the soft and the hard stances.
The soft stance
(wherein we use method and discipline and hope for the best)
Prioritization – Among the bundle of joy waiting for your login, some messages are more urgent than others. Keep an eye out for time-sensitive missives – if you spend 10 minutes just dealing with the immediate, the rest of the overload problem will not seem so haunting and you can deal with it at your own pace.
Labelling/Folders – Still mostly underused, this categorization of messages is a powerful aid when it comes to processing. You can 'tag' an email even without reading or replying. That action ensured it's not going to be forgotten and can easily be accessed at a later date.
Do Unto Others – Let's get educational. Although it may seem like an act of faith, the truth is that your correspondents react to your style of communication. If you chatter, they will feel free to chatter. If you see appointment-making as a speculative exercise on the best of all possible calendarization, expect to be bombarded with flexible meetmaking as well. Straight and to the point, as you would have them do unto you.
The hard stance
(wherein we cut the cord and send as much ballast flying as we can)
Unsubscribe – You could say this is the most obvious of tips. But dollars to donuts, everyone has at least one newsletter they don't seem to ever read - still cluttering the inbox one day at a time. Usually the rationale is that "I read it once, I may want to do it again". If the content is merely shovelware from another platform, or if its contents can easily be found from a single google search – you don't need it.
Delete, Delete, Delete – Don't be afraid to go mad with power. Those endless group conversations that only seem to hit a decision point after prolongued foreplay? Only the latest message gets to sit in the inbox. The daily memo or a check-in from a colleague? A cursory glance followed by the trash bin. Visual clutter is almost as big a problem as overload.
Cut Redundancy – Is the sender of an email working in the same office as you? Are you meeting the sender later today, or going to be in a call with them? In that case, don't get the rock rolling on a conversation that will intermittently clutter your inbox and simply don't reply.
The timesink that email has turned into has even prompted some administrations to consider completely banning internal email. Such drama does not seem to garner much support, however. The agility and dexterity of email is rooted in something that will not change anytime soon: everyone uses it, and everyone knows how to use it. It's up to us to learn how to better use it. In other words, it's better to work on the relationship than break up.