The tyranny of the email

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgThere are 999 messages in my inbox. An inordinately large number of them are flagged “urgent.” There are 1710 messages in my “to sort” mailbox. This is a local folder where I dump messages from my inbox and outbox when I start getting error messages about having too many messages in my IMAP boxes. I am afraid of scrolling through my email because I will undoubtedly find a lot of things I have forgotten to do. And I don’t have any more time to do them now as when they came in. I find I’m actually terrified of my computer, repository of all email-related requests, which makes my obsessively clicking the “check mail” button even more peculiar.

I am not one of these people who can cope with having thousands of emails in my inbox. When I see that huge number at the top of my screen when I open my mail, it immediately represents to me the number of other people whose lives I am holding up because I don’t have the energy to get back to them right away. So really that 999 messages represents a whole bunch of guilt on my part.

I still would prefer for people to send me email, though, because it still goes through a “okay, is this a fire?” filter, and if the answer is no, even if I then forget about it, at least I can search for it later. Apple Mail’s search feature is quite marvelous that way. And then I can send the long-suffering requester who has just sent a follow-up a “oh, I’m so sorry to have forgotten to get back to you. Here are my thoughts:” kind of message. Note to self: some readers may have received such messages… oops.

I’m closing my email now, in hopes I can focus on something else for a while.

That is all. Unless you care to share how you deal with the tyranny of the email. Which would be most appreciated.

Oops, not closed soon enough – I’m now at 1000 messages in the inbox.


  1. #1 hypoglycemiagirl
    September 22, 2008

    I practice the GTD “zero inbox” idea. I used to have a giant number of emails in my inbox, but after reading David Allen’s book about a year ago, I spent half a day sorting my emails, deleting a lot and getting my inbox to empty. It’s great. And I get all of my emails into my gmail account, because I hate my institute’s web-based email system. I also download them to outlook once in a while in case I need them when I’m out of web range.

    When I check email I process it immediately; if the request takes less than two minutes I do it, if it’s uninteresting I delete it, if it requires more than two minutes of work I make a note, tag the email and get back to it later.

    This being said, I don’t get huge amounts of email every day. I still check email more often than necessary

  2. #2 Maria Brumm
    September 22, 2008

    I keep trying the “zero inbox” thing… and I just end up with 99 messages in my “deal with this Real Soon Now” folder, instead of in my inbox.

    That said, the two-minute rule has helped me keep it down to 99 messages in the pile, instead of 999, which is something. Not enough to eliminate that nagging sense of guilt, but something.

  3. #3 Marie
    September 22, 2008

    I’m pretty close to the zero inbox. A few years ago, a senior colleague advised me to only check twice a day. I don’t do that, exactly, but something close. I actually do most of my email at the end of the day …

    (actually, this summer, I made a habit of checking email sitting on my porch with a lovely glass of wine; now that evenings are cooler I’ve moved from rieslings to pinot noirs, but it’s amazing what a single glass of really nice wine and some good cheese does for the whole process….but I digress)

    … So the last thing I do with my day is check email, and I answer just about everything. Some days there’s an overflow, but by Fridays or the following Monday I get it all cleaned out. I actually do this at home rather than at the office so that I can sit down and get it all done without having to rush off (and say something stupid in the process).

    Then in the morning I just get to work – no email till mid-morning or so. I’ll skim it on and off to see if there’s a crisis, but unless there’s something urgent, I won’t actually read and repond to email until mid-day. Then it’s off again until my evening wrap up.

    Some other things: I filter email into a dozen or more mailboxes so that I can easily find things that demand urgent care. And any email that requires more action than I have time for goes on my to-do list and out of my inbox.

    I get a few hundred emails a day, and I’ve found that this system works really well and helps me feel in control and on track.

  4. #4 Sicilian
    September 22, 2008

    Email is the main communication for my job. I have started to keep my inbox cleaner than I used to just so I know what I need to take care of immediately.
    I think you just have to allow time each day to deal with it, and then you won’t be overwhelmed.
    Kind of hard to do when you are a young mom.

  5. #5 ScienceWoman
    September 22, 2008

    I can say that there is one small advantage to using Outlook. I have no idea how many emails are in my inbox. I periodically try to clean it out – usually from the oldest to newest. Its amazing the amount of stuff you can delete after you’ve ignored it for six months or more!

  6. #6 stepwise girl
    September 22, 2008

    I’v recently tried the “no email till late in the morning” thing and it has really helped me dealing with it more efficiently. But my inbox is still a big mess…

  7. #7 Academic
    September 22, 2008

    I once had someone give me wise council that it is a good idea to straighten your desk every day when you leave. At large bulk email times, I tend to take the following approaches: 1) e-mail is NOT the first thing I do in the morning — gives it too much importance, 2) I spend time at the end of the working day to get my e-mail squared away so I can deal with it appropriately, and 3) route my email lists that are generally just useful information to gmail so I can conduct searches as necessary. I tend to use a notebook to organize things that need to get done so I can think about my approach to key issues not in front of my computer. Lately I’ve been developing some pretty nasty eye strain.

  8. #8 Emily
    September 23, 2008

    I am amazed that some of you can go for such large periods of time without checking email. I get so many “last minute” sorts of emails that if I didn’t check my email often, I’d show up for something that got canceled or miss out on something that I should have been at. I definitely don’t respond to everything right away (hence the many emails labeled “to do” and “reply!” in my inbox), but I like to at least know what’s going on. However, I am one of those who has grown up with computers and the internet, gets their email forwarded to their phone, and has a Pavlovian “yay email!” response whenever I see a number show up on my email window…

  9. #9 Marie
    September 23, 2008

    Emily (and others) – I guess one of the reasons I can go for “so long” (several hours) w/o checking email is that while I’ve been a techno-geek since the whole thing started, I also realize that, frankly, I’m just not that important and few things are that urgent that I have to be in constant contact with the world. It’s rare that something is cancelled just hours ahead of time, and if I miss something I “should” have attended, oh well. Next time, if they want me there, they’ll let me know earlier. Not responding to every little thing actually makes me a lot more efficient and productive at the things I’m really supposed to be spending my time on.

    I’ll also say that when I moved to this approach, it did take me about a whole day to go through all the backlogged stuff, sort it, file it, deal with it, delete it.

  10. #10 Kid Panda
    September 23, 2008

    As someone who gets about 100 a day and manages to stay afloat, a few humble suggestions:

    Automatic sorting into mailboxes — i.e., anything from certain addresses goes into a folder dedicated to work messages, to messages from journals, and so on.

    If it’s important, respond right away. Others have said this, can’t say it enough.

    After a week, if you’ve got a bunch of “unread” emails, just select them all and mark them as read. Don’t bother reading them if you don’t really feel like it. (I mean, go through the subject lines quick, just in case, but otherwise — poof!) If something’s important, it’ll be sent again. (Hell, add that to your signature: “If I don’t respond to you in TK, just email me again, because I might have missed it.) It’s amazing how this lightens the conscience.

    Use a desktop email client. Can’t recommend this enough. It boggles my mind that people use webmail for serious work. It’s inefficient, and there’s nothing worse than wasting more time than necessary on stupid clerical tasks.

  11. #11 grad student
    September 23, 2008

    Getting a handle on email requires an empty inbox. This is the hard part. I’ve heard of people declaring e-mail bankruptcy, and deleting entire inboxes to just deal with the email that comes in. This takes a simple point of view exercise: every email in my 1000-item inbox is lost among 999 of its fellows. The chances of my ever getting to those emails are slim to none. The practical difference between the current state of affairs and actually deleting them is, in fact, nil. These emails have already been deleted, they just don’t know it yet. They are Deleted Emails Walking (or Staring At Me With A Look of Superiority, whichever you prefer). Deleting the emails is just acknowledging reality, and making my future life easier and happier.

  12. #12 guppygeek
    September 23, 2008

    Aha! I have been wondering why I was so much more efficient 10 years ago. Yes, part of it is the principle of push comes to shove (with 2 small children there is no choice but to be highly efficient). But this post tells me the answer may be EMAIL! I successfully (usually) keep my inbox pretty clean…but with 50 to 100 emails per day, that means, hey, fewer hours in the day!

  13. #13 PhysioProf
    September 23, 2008

    I downgrade my attention to e-mails flagged “urgent”. Only clueless dumbfuck assholes flag e-mails urgent, and thus whatever they are e-mailing me is highly likely to be the opposite of urgent. If I set my spam filter to shitcan all e-mails flagged urgent, it would have only a salutary effect on my life.

  14. #14 KAS
    September 24, 2008

    I am even worse… I have work email & (3) personal email accounts. I use my comcast one for important personal things and sending large files (larger than all the other providers) gmail as my secondary for anything non important & a yahoo account for activations and things that I know are going to enroll me in newsletters & spam and that sort. But, the worst part is; I use my comcast email to constantly mail documents to myself for use at home or at work… As far as organizing– I take the check 2000 times a day approach 🙂

    And yes, I also fanatically refresh my email. Task oreintated emails at work however, I choose to print out (screw paperless) and put it in my physical inbox instead 😉


  15. #15 Zuska
    September 24, 2008

    I don’t even work right now and my inbox has 200 emails in it. I got it down to 120 awhile ago but it zoomed right back up there. I keep saying I’m going to just take a whole day and clear it out but I never do. I have no system whatsoever for email. Once I open it, it pretty much stays open all day and I look at it periodically while I am doing whatever else. It is a huge time drain and often keeps me from completing other tasks I have sworn I would do by day’s end. People should not emulate me in any respect with regard to email.

    But I just luv luv luv email! because it keeps me in touch with all my friends and former colleagues and new blogger pals; otherwise I would feel completely isolated and alone at home, without work connections. Email and blogging: good for those pushed out of the workforce by health issues.

    I have no useful advice for managing email. It is my blessing and my curse.

  16. #16 Maaike
    September 25, 2008

    I used to think that I could manage all my emails in between pipetting, proofing manuscripts and thinking about research proposals, but got frustrated and stressed when the inbox started overflowing.

    After realizing that email-management should actually be part of the job description, I set aside two time-slots per day, religiously. I don’t close my email program in the mean time (haven’t gotten there yet, work in progress), but I don’t respond to them until the assigned time slots.

    I do check it in the morning when I come in, which I know the experts say not to do, but I tend to leave early and don’t check my mail at night, so I would feel I might miss something important. I have an hour time slot in the morning, and 45 min after lunch dedicated to dealing with this.

    Having a clean email inbox at pretty much any time has done wonders for my productivity and sanity, so good luck finding something that works for you.

  17. #17 Glenn Friesen
    September 26, 2008

    inbox 0. I’ve tried so hard to achieve you! 🙂

  18. #18 Carlie
    September 27, 2008

    I had never heard of “Inbox Zero”, but after seeing it here I looked it up and watched the video, the whole 50 minutes of it (whilst knitting, so being somewhat productive). Common sense ideas, but the kind that had apparently never occurred to me. I particularly liked his way of describing old emails as something like “shriveled husks of no more value”. This weekend I managed to delete about 300 old emails and archive another 300 or so (no joke, I have two years’ worth backlogged in there), and I at least got my server usage down by 5%. I’m going to try to go for it, at least mostly. I did make 4 different types of archive, because I couldn’t bear to put it all in one, but I like the basic idea.

  19. #19 A
    October 11, 2008

    I’ll try and make you and myself feel better instead of advice… I have 5759 in inbox, 551 unread. Unread ones are not simply spam I didn’t delete either… A few years ago when I was already overwhelmed by email but not as much as I m now, I started to not even open messages that I thought were not urgent or that I would not be able to attend to at the time. This doesn’t really help, as you can see.

    I’ve tried zeroing my inbox. Never sticks. Like people who lose weight and gain it back, I just cannot stick to “my new healthy habits”

    But seriously, are you suffering consequences other than the anxiety? Perhaps it’s OK to not do this “the right way” (and maybe your anxiety decreases when you thnk about it that way…)

    I’m not saying anyone should adopt a messy approach to e-mail or life in general! But if you are one of those people, might be better spend your energy on other things than to try to change your nature… Maybe you’re not the most organized person when it comes to e-mail… After all there are many many things you do really well!

  20. #20 Kiriti.Bhattacharya
    February 17, 2009

    E-mails are a pain.
    It is like working at your desk and someone coming in every two minutes and knocking the door for your attention. We are raised to finish what we start from our porridge to our homework; and this places a huge guilt in us for having an Inbox which is full. I never go home knowing that I have cleaned up – I always feel that there is unfinished work because of the filled Inbox. How did we ever manage without e-mails? Some will say better.
    For me the hierarchy of communications is as follows (the top being the best):
    1. Face to face conversation where we can see each other’s emotions and body language.
    2. Telephone conversation – where I can at least hear the modulations of the voice.
    3. Chat with instant reactions.
    4. E-mails are at the bottom of the heap. Because it is a monologue, and devoid of seeing/hearing the recipient’s emotions. And emotions are critical in communications.
    I have told my team that this is the prefered options.
    E-mails should only be used where in the past we used the post office or the Inter Office Memo on paper. Not for a blooming conversation…please. No one listens.
    Now I have to go back to my Inbox.

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