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Ways of Combating Email Bankruptcy

Photography: mzelle biscotte

Monday mornings have never been very popular but ever since the Web took over the world there’s been a new reason to wish for a seven-day weekend. Forty-eight hours away from the office can mean hundreds of emails collecting unanswered in your inbox. Before you can even begin the week’s work, you first have to wade through the jokes, spam and personal messages to find the business emails sent on Friday evening just… and that’s so that you can answer the follow-up emails sent on Saturday morning asking why you haven’t responded.

One solution is to copy Wired correspondent Lawrence Lessig and declare email bankruptcy. He gave up on the idea of answering all his emails, wrote to everyone whose email he hadn’t answered, apologized profusely, suggested that anyone with an urgent request should write to him again and promised special attention to anyone who did.

That’s certainly one way of dealing with email overload and while it’s not as expensive as financial bankruptcy, it is a public declaration of complete disorganization.

There are alternatives. Here are some of them.

Filter your Messages into Folders
It sounds so simple and yet the whole process of setting up filters and making sure they work can be so tedious that they’re often overlooked. That’s a shame because an inbox really should be a temporary place to store messages until they’re acted on rather than a permanent home for overlooked attachments.

One possible solution could be Itzy Sabo’s SpeedFiler, an add-on to Outlook which makes the filing process much simpler.

It won’t actually answer the emails for you, but at least you won’t have to see them when you’re checking your messages.

Filter your Messages Out
It’s a trick that’s been well-used on telephones and strangely ignored by email users. Away messages can be a neat way of screening your emails. Senders receive an automatic reply saying that you’ve received their message but that you won’t be answering it right away.

There’s no expectation, so no nagging follow-up emails — and no surprise when non-urgent messages are ignored. This BBC article also points out that you can use away messages to claim that you’re doing a leadership course or meeting the Dalai Lama for dinner.

Network technicians point out that you can expect to hear from a lot more spammers.

Answer Two-Minute Emails Right Away
David Allen, the creator of the Getting Things Done productivity system, has a solution to email overload. He recommends that any task, including email answering, that can be completed within two minutes should be done immediately.

Most emails though can be answered within two minutes so he’s really saying that you should answer all your emails right away. That would certainly give you a clean inbox… whether you’d get anything else done though is a whole other question.

Answer All your Messages at Once
You might be better off then doing the exact opposite. Programs like GMail’s Notifier let you see when an email arrives and gives a peek of the content. That means you don’t have to check your inbox to see if an urgent message has come in. Anything that isn’t urgent you can just ignore until later.

You could then leave yourself half an hour at the beginning and end of each day to answer anything that needs to be answered. The time limit will keep your answers short and most people can wait a work day to receive a reply.

Start Fewer Email Chains
Look at your inbox and see a long list of flagged messages, and you might think that your problem is that you’re not writing enough emails. That could be true. But it could also be true that you’re writing too many emails. One way to keep your inbox under control is only to use email when absolutely necessary.

If you can get the same information across with an SMS message, a quick IM or even a phone call, then do it. There’ll be nothing to reply to, the conversation won’t last more than a few minutes — and you’ll have one less email chain waiting for a new link.

Get Used to Being Rude
The biggest problem with email is that it feels rude not to answer. That’s true even if all someone has done is send you a link to a news article, a bad joke or a message saying you’ll catch leprosy if you don’t forward it to everyone you’ve ever met. It probably is rude not to answer a message but… well, tough.

When you’re getting hundreds of emails a day, you can’t possibly answer every single one. You didn’t ask for the link, the joke or whatever it is, so if it’s not urgent, sending it to you and expecting a reply is an imposition. People who are as busy as you are will understand. People who email occasionally will have to learn to forgive.

How do you keep up with your email? Don’t email us… use the comment form below.

[tags] gtd, email bankruptcy [/tags]


  1. Guru Naganat Says:

    I am glad I saw this posting. It gave me some useful hints.

    I have one question if someone could help me.

    The one thing that has caused my inbox inundated every day is the mailing lists that I subscribed to or opted in. They are not completely spam and i need to see their heading just to see if I want to read them.

    Is there a way my Outlook rule can identify these newsletters and filter them so I can browse them later on? I am tired of setting individual email rules in my Outlook.

    can someone help?

  2. Marsha Egan Says:

    Good post! I think one of your best points is to use email less frequently... Too many people are confusing email with dialogue, and a quick phone call, even if you get voice mail, could reduce the amount of email you're receiving.

    Another hint, if you think you're getting too many jokes, is to set up a separate email account just to receive jokes, and to tell all your joking friends to use that address. Then you get to go in and get the jokes when you're in the mood, not Monday morning!

  3. Mike Says:

    To these great tips, I would add the insight from Tim Ferriss' book, The 4-Hour Workweek: Check your email only twice a day at noon and 4 pm. This is all part of his low information diet mentality. The book has a lot of other good tips, including more about email, and is certainly worth a read.

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