Okay, You’ve Declared E-Mail Bankruptcy. Now What?

There’s lots going on in Xconomy-land, so this week’s column will be shorter than usual. Which is probably fine with you, since everyone seems pressed for time these days.

Microsoft is notorious for its lame ad campaigns, but lately the software giant has been putting its finger on the overcommitment problem, through an amusing series of ads for Hotmail under the theme “The New Busy.” As Microsoft implies in its ads, everyone in a knowledge-worker role spends more time than they would like managing stuff like incoming e-mail. I can’t quite see how Hotmail solves that problem—but there’s no doubt it’s a real one.

So, on this subject of being too busy, I want to come back to a 2009 column I wrote about the “e-mail bankruptcy” method for getting over your inbox management blues. I’ve noticed more and more people turning to this technique. Just this week, for example, David Cancel, CEO of Amesbury, MA-based Web analytics startup Performable, tweeted that he was getting ready to do the deed.

Declaring e-mail bankruptcy is simple, and not nearly as painful as its financial namesake. All you have to do is admit to yourself that you’re never going to have time to deal with the huge backlog of unanswered e-mails clogging your inbox, and archive or delete them en masse. (It’s polite to let your frequent correspondents know that you’re doing this, so they can re-message you if they were waiting to hear back about some urgent inquiry.)

But clearing out your inbox is only the first half of the solution to chronic e-mail overload, and it’s the second half that I want to touch on today. The trick is to prevent another backlog from building up by completely emptying your inbox at least once every work day.

Emptying your inbox the first time is easy. But keeping it empty requires vigilance and dedication, as I learned after I deleted some 15,000 unanswered e-mails back in January 2009. I kept to my zero-inbox routine for a couple of months, but then I fell off the wagon, allowing one day’s accumulation of e-mail to build up to a week’s and then a month’s. Pretty soon my unread message count was back up to 3,000. That mountain of e-mail is pretty easy to build up in a hurry if you get 150 to 250 e-mails a day, as I do.

I knew I’d have to go through another bankruptcy eventually, but first I wanted to find some techniques that might help me adhere to the zero-inbox habit. My main challenge—and the big reason I’d given up on my routine—was that it was just taking too long. I’d put in a regular 8, 10, or 12-hour work day, and then I’d have to spend another hour or two getting through all of the stuff in my inbox. Faced with a choice between keeping my inbox empty and having a semblance of a life outside work, I had chosen life.

But after I was seated as a juror on a medical malpractice trial back in March and wound up spending three weeks away from the office, my e-mail log jam grew so tangled that I had to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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10 responses to “Okay, You’ve Declared E-Mail Bankruptcy. Now What?”

  1. I moved to keeping an empty email box about a year ago, but I did it gradually. My first move was to make sure it was empty just once a week, on Fridays. You can imagine the wonderful (not) Friday evenings I spend adhering to that goal. I shifted to a daily goal and pretty much keep to it, using a version of the process you described. My own rule is to have no more than a viewing pane of emails in the inbox, most of which would fall in the “read/hold” category you mentioned. The biggest key to doing this is indeed handling the quick ones on the spot, as you prescribe.

    I still haven’t totally gotten over the “email inbox as to-do list” issue. It is still a “to-do” to keep on top of it the way I do. One big giant, soul-sucking, boring, and annoying “to-do.” It’s an understatement to say that I have no love lost for email.

  2. Alex Moore says:

    Wade, I wish you’d been at MassInno on Wednesday, because our presentation for Boomerang was pretty much a carbon copy of paragraphs from this article in terms of laying out the problem, plus a few humorous images.

    We gave a demo of how Boomerang makes it easy to manage those emails that Matt described, helping people to handle email without feeling like robots.

    It sounds like you’re on a Mac, but if you’ve got a copy of Outlook kicking around, let me know! Otherwise, we’ll have a version for Gmail coming out in the next couple weeks.

  3. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @Jules: I feel your pain. And I admit that I do leave some e-mail in my inbox as reminders of things I’ve got to take care of. I think the danger is that if you let them stay in there longer than one day, there’s much less chance that you’ll actually get around to doing them.

    @Alex: Thanks for your comment. I’m aware of Boomerang and similar tools like Followup (which Erin profiled here recently). Thankfully I escaped from Outlook a few years ago and would never consider going back. But I’d love to try out your Gmail version when it’s ready. Generally though, I’m skeptical about the idea of dealing with the difficult e-mails simply by forwarding them to yourself in the future. This seems like just another way of delaying the pain. Of course there are people who argue, in all seriousness, that putting off as much stuff as you can is a good time management technique!

  4. Michael Hawes says:

    Wade, thanks for another excellent article. I find all your articles informative, well-researched and well-written. Keep it up!

  5. Alex Moore says:

    Aye, at some point you have to pay the fiddler’s bill.

    To be honest, I was skeptical too, until I started using the thing every day. Knowing that there are 3 difficult emails left, and nothing else, is psychologically very different than looking at an Inbox with 20 messages in it, only 3 of which are actionable right now. Looking forward to seeing if the Gmail version has the same effect on you!

  6. Bill Baker says:

    A small additional tip for Outlook users, but likely applies to all or most other email clients: Your answer, read and hold folders will be spread out in your folder hierarchy, because the folder list is usually alphabetical. Read might not even show in the first N folder names. I named mine ‘0 – Answer’, ‘1 – Read’ and ‘2 – Hold’. They are always at the top of the folder list and top-of-mind.

  7. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @Bill Baker—that’s a really good point. I actually did the same thing in Gmail, which has folders but calls them labels. I created three labels called “1 Answer”, “2 Read”, and “3 Hold”, and now they’re at the top of my label list, which makes it easy to drag-and-drop emails right into those bins.