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Is it time to file for email bankruptcy?

As an author of a best-selling book on writing emails, you might assume I’d be the Marie Kondo of email organisation.  That only a couple of emails ever sit in my inbox (the ones that bring me joy, of course) surrounded by glorious, calming white space. But no. 

Like so many others, two years of pandemic, lockdowns and home schooling led to an inbox that was shamefully groaning with more than 20,000 emails.

I’d opened them all and flagged the most critical ones, but otherwise had no systems in place to process them. Email management was eating up more and more valuable time in my day and I was constantly distracted that I might have missed something.

So at the beginning of the year, I decided to file for email bankruptcy.

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I scanned through all my emails from the past three months and filed only 10 in a separate folder to action.

Everything else I swept into my archive file. Yes, all 20,000 of them.  The feeling of relief was instant. So much white space. A clearer mind. Better concentration. 

Now I’ve cleared the decks, I’m batching my emails, tackling them only twice a day. And so far, no-one has noticed my radical approach.

There are always fewer than 10 emails in my inbox at the end of the day (just those that need a more thoughtful response). So far, so great.

However, while it works for now, I know I’m only one lockdown away from potentially sliding back into old habits. As psychologist Jocelyn Brewer wrote, “email is a zombie that keeps rising from the dead". 

And while this approach might suit me, I’m not suggesting it’s for everyone. We all have a different preferred approach. Glancing at a friend’s phone recently, I noticed it proudly displayed a whopping 32,095 unread emails.

It had me reaching for the smelling salts, but my friend was non-plussed. Her attitude to email? Simply filter at the subject line.  Anything non-urgent didn’t even get opened. And it served her well.

Other colleagues swear by the Stack Method, a productivity hack for prioritising and actioning your emails.

But as Cal Newport rightly points out in A World Without Email tools aren’t the full solution. In an attempt to fix email overload, many organisations have begun to use Slack or other platforms. But actually, they’ve just recreated the same overwhelm problem elsewhere.

The real villain here isn’t email at all. The true problem, Newport explains, is the way organisations rely on asynchronous, unscheduled messaging for the majority of their communication.

This reliance means we have to constantly check our emails if we want to move projects forward and not let our colleagues down. (We’ve all received that chaser ‘did you see my email?’ when we haven’t replied fast enough.)

His advice? Fix the underlying systems that lead to email overwhelm.

Figure out how you can get your work done without unscheduled messages. Use ‘office hours’ drop-in calls or stand-up, short sharp meetings to discuss any issues. If questions arise outside of these get-togethers, can they simply wait?

And if you’re client-facing, Newport recommends setting clear boundaries with clients about when and how we’ll respond: ‘Clarity trumps accessibility.’

The biggest lesson here though is that email overwhelm is real. And it’s worth finding effective ways to tackle it. Constantly shifting our attention from our important work to our inboxes ruins our concentration and our productivity.

So, let’s make 2022 the year we waste less time on email management. Let’s keep trying different, more creative approaches. We might not achieve full email enlightenment, but even small changes might reduce our overwhelm enormously. And that’s got to be worth a go, right? 

Kim Arnold is a communication consultant and the author of Email Attraction