Declaring Email Bankruptcy: How To Do More With (A Lot) Less Email

Posted by Emily Helm on Jul 30, 2015 10:41:04 AM
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Have you ever been swamped with email? With the typical business user sending and receiving more than 120 emails per day an email is coming in or going out an average once every 12 minutes in a 24 hour day. It can be overwhelming, and with the number of emails being sent steadily rising, there’s no break. If most of your day consists of trying to keep your head above water with emails whenever you can — on the way into the office, waiting for coffee, on your phone as your Outlook is booting up  and you still feel behind, it may be time to declare email bankruptcy and wipe the slate clean.

Declaring Email Bankruptcy

Email bankruptcy, a term coined by Dr. Sherry Turkle, has a list of notable practitioners. And the core concept is simple: delete all your emails so you go from having hundreds or thousands unread, to having none at all – read or unread.

It’s not as rash as it may sound, and, if done right, it can actually improve your communications. Although we have thousands of emails in our inboxes, not all are created equal. They range from long chains with multiple attachments and iterations of documents, to the one line “coffee?” And many of our emails come from the same people. I’m guessing that, if you look at your inbox, 80% of your messages come from 20% of the people who message you. For important communications that percentage split is probably more extreme.

If you spend your days triaging emails, promising yourself that you’ll “get to that one later” only to see it slip off the screen as other emails pile in, and your nights thinking “did I send Mary the final attendees list?” as you slip into bed, it may be time to consider email bankruptcy. If you’re thinking about declaring bankruptcy, the biggest hurdle is building up the courage to do it. Once that’s done I recommend taking these steps to do email bankruptcy right:

  • Set a hard date: Don’t declare bankruptcy in a fit of passion after five redundant emails appear in your inbox in a three minute span. Think carefully about a date and stick to it. I recommend a Friday, before a long weekend, or around a lull in your work action, like the holidays. Those are natural reset times anyway, so it will be easier for your team to adjust.
  • Let those with whom you most frequently correspond know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it: Chances are there’s a core group you communicate with the most. A week or two before your proposed day zero, let them know your plan so they can get back to you with anything that’s pending. But also let them know why you’re doing it. It will help them understand your thought process and allow them to be a conscious supporter. Explaining your decision will help them support your decision, and may help you (and them!) avoid a similar email crisis in the future.
  • Take action afterwards: Draining the swamp of emails is a relief, but it's only a relief if it doesn’t fill up again. Set rules — both for you and for your email client — unsubscribe from lists, and start picking up the phone.

The Aftermath

The first thing I suspect you’ll notice is relief. You were never actually going back to check the May emails — they were as good as gone anyway — but they were still taking up space in your inbox and space in your mind.

Occasionally you may get a response to an email you sent before “day zero” checking on a project, or apologizing for not getting back to you earlier (oh, the irony), but those will be the exceptions. For the most part it will be like your first day at school, starting a new grade: you’ll feel rejuvenated and you'll have a fresh start. Another fantastic side effect? Better sleep. Without realizing it you’re probably taking that pile of unread emails to bed with you every night, and they’re on your mind as you try to sleep. When they’re gone, you can go to bed with a clean slate.

It’s easy for our jobs to morph into responding to emails, and not getting things done. And through this process you’ll also relearn what’s important. There’s so much to do every day, ideas that come and go, projects that seem big in the moment, then fade. The important ones rise to the top again, either because someone reminds you or because you decide to do something. Trust your instincts and have them drive your day, not your emails. If your inbox is overwhelming, declare email bankruptcy and your workday, and night’s sleep, will never feel richer.

This is part of Edgework Consulting’s Time Management Workshop series. Each Time Management Workshop post is bite-sized and designed to help you get more out of the hours you have. For more entries in the Time Management Workshop series click here.

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Topics: Time Management, Email