My previous Inbox Zero post has generated a lot of disagreement and controversy. I can’t say I didn’t expect it. I’m really torn. Part of me certainly agrees that if you work in a culture where everything of value happens via email and no one is willing to talk face-to-face or by phone, then email may be the only way you can work. But I just don’t believe that you have to be a victim of such a culture.
Email is not just paper mail put online. People use it quite differently. Email is fundamentally different from prior forms of communication in that it comes at virtually no cost to the sender. The size of your inbox is not under your control. It is under the control of those who want to send you stuff. Back when written letters required effort, addressing, stamps, and delays, people did not use them to pass off work, delegate things they could do more easily themselves, and so on.
By removing all barriers to sending, email has made all of us recipients of whatever drivel anyone wants to send. Given the slowness of the medium (even very fast typists can’t type nearly as fast as they can talk) and the poor use of it by most senders, my observation is that it fails to make us more productive in many cases; time spent working towards Inbox Zero increases our activity and feelings of accomplishment while actually reducing measurable results. (The exception to this is when email is used to communicate reference information, shared documents, etc.)
A Couple Of Tips That Help
Am I advocating ignoring messages in your inbox? I guess not. But I am advocating adding back barriers to having people send you email in the first place. Don’t respond immediately. Ask people to come talk in person if they have anything of substance to discuss. Use short, almost useless answers (or don’t answer!) for messages that should never have been sent in the first place.
Sorting your inbox by subject or sender can also help you quickly identify the messages you want to respond to, and keep your brain on one topic long enough to make some progress, but it’s only a partial solution, since you are still at the mercy of other people’s subject lines and time-wasting messages. (And besides, Gmail won’t let you sort by sender, only by it’s idea of what a conversation is.)
Challenge Me With Data
Want to challenge me? Log your email for a week. Write down (or put in a spreadsheet) each message that hits your inbox, whether it really required your attention or not, and what job outcome would have been affected had you ignored it. Also note how much total time you spent on email. Then give me a call and we’ll examine the log message by message, and decide how useful your email is. Cries of “I just HAVE to do it all” won’t convince me, but data will. (And though I’m willing to change my mind, I’m going to bet that no one reading this is actually willing to do the experiment for fear of having data that contradicts the justification for their email addiction.)
But saying “I need to process all my email every day” does not regain the time you’re wasting on email, nor does it make you more productive, nor does it change the fact that email buffets your attention and uses up brain power that then can’t be used for anything else. (See the book “The Power of Full Engagement” for a discussion of how our attention and willpower is limited, and gets used up by activities that require thought, regardless of whether those are the “right” activities or not.) Email is a communication tool, nothing more. Like any tool, its use should be measured in how much more work it helps you do.
Email is Still an Incredible Time Suck
The fact remains that an hour of email triage a day is six work-weeks a year. That’s an awful lot of time to devote to email unless you can make a convincing case that a month and a half’s worth of your results wouldn’t have been possible without doing it over email.
Personally, I like saving my brainpower for the things I care about. Not everyone has the same priorities. But as I get older and find I have less energy to spend on trivia, email stands out as the number one drain of my energy that’s high on dopamine punch, but low on measurable results.