Forget about “inbox zero”: The real problem with email isn’t your unread messages

Forget about
Forget about “inbox zero”: The real problem with email isn’t your unread messages

I currently have over 1 million unread messages in my Gmail inbox — a horrifying number I almost never contemplate because it’s just too scary. As a freelance writer, I check my email often, but I never feel like I’ve mastered it, and I’m not the only one who feels similarly overwhelmed. Enter “Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done” by Jocelyn K. Glei, an invaluable new guide to navigating how we manage sending and receiving email.

Glei posits that it’s not our fault — email is addictive, and science backs this up. There’s a system of “random rewards” that makes us feel accomplished when we hit “send,” even when we know the recipient will soon be right back in our inbox. But we don’t have to succumb; we can save time, aggravation and those never-ending email chains by setting expectations for readers and ourselves.

Glei provides practical solutions regarding who to prioritize (and how), when to check email (hint: not every five minutes), sending emails that get responses and how gaining control of our inboxes frees up more time for our most important work.

I spoke with Glei about why email is so addictive, why you need an email schedule, how to overcome the “negativity bias,” when to shorten your emails and why inbox zero isn’t a worthy goal.

When did you first realize that email overwhelm was such a big problem for so many people? Have you had to work on following the advice that you recommend in your book, or has this always come easy for you?

I realized in the big picture, distraction and information overload in general is a huge problem for everyone. I dug into some of the stats on how much time people were spending on email, and the numbers were pretty crazy. On average, people are spending 28 percent of their work week on email; they’re checking their email 11 times an hour and processing 122 messages a day. A British study found that switching from email to something else and back to email again actually lowered people’s IQ the equivalent of 10 points. [They made the comparison] of smoking pot and then going to work. It’s leaving us in a situation where you feel very busy and you feel like you’re doing things, but then you get to the end of the work day and you feel like you didn’t do anything meaningful.

Have you found yourself sometimes feeling stressed out about your inbox?

One hundred percent. If you look at circadian rhythms, most people follow a standard rhythm. Typically that means that the time you’ll have most energy and attention to get work done is between 9 and 11 a.m., or for some, 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. But that’s exactly the time when most of us are spending a huge amount of energy on email. What happens is you start the day with email and then you push off your most important work until 3 or 4 p.m., when you have no energy and according to circadian rhythms, that’s when your energy usually dips.

We have this screwed-up system which I found myself falling into, where you’re doing your least important work during your peak mental and creative time, and you’re trying to do your most important work during your lowest energy and creative time of the day. I think email is the biggest factor in that so I wanted to figure out what was behind it and how you could implement some changes that would help.

One of those changes is you suggest setting up an email schedule. Why is that so important?

There was a study done that looked at how people email. It identified two types of people, batchers and reactors. A lot of us are reactors—you’re nibbling on your email throughout the day, driven by notifications. You’re reacting to the email rather than controlling it. The second group is batchers, who deliberately set aside certain times of day in which they’ll check their email and confine their email to those windows. What they found in the study is the people who checked their email in batches were significantly more productive, happier and less stressed out.

What about when you’ve made this schedule but then you have down time, in between meetings or waiting at a doctor’s office?

It depends on the person. One of the reasons I have so much trouble checking email in the morning sometimes is that I’ll get some unexpected email and it’ll incite a lot of anxiety and I won’t be able to stop thinking about whatever that thing is. That’s not the case for everyone. Some people can look at something and dismiss it and move on. So I think you have to be sensitive to your own disposition.

It’s really helpful to send what I call “expectation setting” replies to people. One of the challenges is everyone who emails you feels that their message is the most important thing. It’s very urgent to them but they have no concept of all the other things you have to do. Maybe someone emailed you this morning and expects you to get back to them in five minutes. You can email them back and say “I’m stuck in meetings all day and I’ll get back to you at the end of the day or tomorrow morning, but this is important to me and it’s on my to-do list.” To situate that request within some context for them is important and allows you to let that anxiety go.

We forget that we’re setting expectations by responding to every email within five minutes. Once you’re in the habit of checking your email constantly, it’s quite difficult to break free from. You have to set up little windows of not checking email. You don’t have to say I’m not going to check email for three hours. It could be one hour. If you’ve decided I’m not going to check email during this time, you need to try to stick to that practice because it does become easier.

You write about the negativity bias when it comes to email, meaning that the recipient is predisposed to read your email more negatively than you intended. Can you talk about how that works and how people can compensate for that while still sounding like themselves?

Daniel Goldman, the father of the term “emotional intelligence,” was doing research and realized that every email, between being sent and being received, gets downgraded a positivity notch. You don’t have the tone or gesture that shapes someone’s meaning for you. That’s coupled with what I call the busy bias. When everyone is busy a key part of getting people to pay attention is to be respectful of their time. When you’re emailing anyone that you work with, empathize with their workload; understand that your email sits somewhere on this continuum of their to-do list.

It could be as little as saying “thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to consider my request.” On a very basic tactical level, never use imperative phrasing, such as “do that, finish this.” You want to use more conditional language, asking, “Could you do this for me?” so that they feel less like you’re yelling at them and more like they have some agency in the task.

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