Washington Post: Overwhelmed by email? Here’s how to get that inbox under control.

Angela Haupt:

Marsha Egan has a theory: You either control your email, or it controls you.

I have 21,000 unread messages — in my personal account, not others I use for work — so it’s safe to say I fall into the latter camp. Email overwhelm can be crippling: Good intentions to read every interesting newsletter or respond to old friends are flattened by a constant deluge of more, more and more messages, some marked “urgent” or accompanied by chains that take an hour to decipher.

“Email has become the biggest and worst interrupter the universe has ever experienced,” says Egan, a workplace productivity coach and author of “Inbox Detox and the Habit of E-mail Excellence.” “It’s cheap, it’s immediate, and you can copy 200 people if you want to.”

It’s also, many would agree, a giant headache and time suck.

The article goes on to list a bunch of advice for dealing with email. I like it! Here are the headlines of advice:

  • Check your email just a few times a day.
  • Adhere to the four Ds: do, delete, delegate, defer.
  • Turn off notifications.
  • Install useful browser extensions.
  • Don’t think of your inbox as a to-do list.
  • Get good at finding emails.
  • Unsubscribe aggressively.
  • Don’t obsess over Inbox Zero.
  • Don’t use email for urgent communications.
  • Work with colleagues on best practices.
  • Skip the late-night messages.

When I read through these, I have a weird sinking feeling. Is this the kind of thing I want to say with this site too? That’s certainly been my message at times. No exotic technology. No power poses. Not even any dramatic alterations to what you already do. Just adjustments to your relationship with email to get to a healthier place, so that you can start leveraging it better. Being more proactive rather than always reactionary.

It worries me that that advice then becomes… boring. Not that Angela’s article is terribly boring, it’s just all stuff that seems pretty surface level and that I think we’ve all read before. Part of me thinks that boring advice is sometimes OK, people need to hear the basics over and over so they sink in. But another part of me thinks that I’m not really digging deep enough here if I’m just going to echo boring advice.

Just take the first one: “Check your email just a few times a day.” OK, I get it. Email can be a time sink if you dwell in there, so don’t. Get in and get out. I bet that works for a lot of people. But actually, without looking any further than myself, it doesn’t work for everyone. I keep my email open all day and it doesn’t bother me. It’s like a command center for me. I do other work (blog, write code, do meetings) and manage my email all day, and I like it, it’s fine.

But maybe that works for me because of a combination of things. Like this one: “Unsubscribe aggressively.” That’s me. I unsubscribe from things every day. I’m constantly pruning what gets to come into my inbox. And because of that, it makes it manageable to live in there a lot.

Analyzing my own behaviors is one thing, but I have a feeling these combinations of behaviors are unique to everyone, and that there is more to uncover there. Are there people that actually like email notifications and they make them more productive? Probably—but why is that? Are there people that actually go for zero emails in the inbox every time they check it? Or is Inbox A Couple an OK strategy too? I hope to keep exploring this kind of stuff over time.

One response to “Washington Post: Overwhelmed by email? Here’s how to get that inbox under control.”

  1. I started unsubscribing aggressively last week. Amazed at how many newsletters I get. Notice a lot of unsubscribing pages are not working.

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