Today’s Washington Post carries an article about an increasing number of people who find themselves having to declare email bankruptcy.
The article is full of sad cases of people who think that declaring email bankruptcy will solve their problem. It won’t. I’ve talked about why email bankruptcy is worse in some ways than financial bankruptcy, and this shows why email bankruptcy is not a solution.
Just as people without financial skills may find themselves bankrupt, people who lack email and time-management skills will find themselves wanting to declare email bankruptcy. People are usually restricted from starting businesses immediately after a financial bankruptcy. In a similar manner, people who suffer from extreme email overload should ensure they get some training in how to handle their workload before they get back in the game.
It’s not just a skill these people are lacking, though. It’s a way of viewing their inboxes and the place the inbox occupies in their life. I’m always saying that email overload is a state-of-mind, and David Ferris puts this very nicely:
“A lot of people like the feeling that they have everything done at the end of the day. They can’t have it anymore.”
I speak from experience. I once declared “job bankruptcy” — my inability to cope with my workload, in which email played a major part, prompted me to tender my resignation. My boss did not want to accept it, but I was determined. During the time that I worked out my notice, I adopted the Getting Things Done method. All of a sudden, I had more than doubled my productivity and reduced my stress tremendously. GTD worked for me because it solved both the practical and psychological sides of the problem. I found that I could do the job well after all, and I continued working there for another 18 months!
Robert Scoble says he is close to declaring “email bankruptcy.”
I don’t believe he’ll take the drastic step of deleting all his mail and notifying all of his contacts that he’s starting again, because in some ways, email bankruptcy is similar to financial bankruptcy:
However, if email bankruptcy would really be like financial bankruptcy, people would stop sending you emails (extending credit), because they would not not trust you to answer them (repay debt). Is that good or bad?
Actually, a closer look at Scoble’s post shows that his problem is not the large volume of email he gets. His inbox is clean, and his messages are all triaged into various folders. His problem seems to be in finding the time to perform all the actions related to the 1537 triaged emails. I would hazard a guess that the root of the problem is that he’s over-committing. Each time we read a message and file it away in an “Action” folder, we are making a commitment to ourselves to handle it at a later date. It’s all too easy to make too many such commitments. It’s nothing to do with email itself — that’s just a communications medium which triggers most of our commitments, and email programs make it too easy for us to pile up these commitments without realizing how overcommitted we are.
My advice to Robert, if indeed this is his problem, is to take his own advice and get back on the GTD wagon. GTD makes us keep a list of projects and a list of next actions. If an incoming email triggers a new project, it is instantly clear to us whether we have room for it now, whether we’ll have to defer it to a later date, or even decline it altogether. Since I adopted GTD, it’s become much easier for me to say “no” when that’s the honest answer, and also much easier to say “yes,” knowing I’ll be able to honor the commitment.
Bob Walsh includes the following line at the bottom of his email signature:
(I usually check email every few hours during the day.)
What a great idea! People who correspond with Bob now know that:
- he does not allow incoming email to disturb what he’s doing (he practices GTD), but
- he’ll definitely read your message within a few hours.
I’m going to adopt this idea with a slight tweak, and add the following to my email signature:
I usually check email every couple of hours during the day, and I reply to most messages within 24 hours.
This won’t stop the odd idiot from calling up to ask if I’ve seen the email he just sent me, but I am confident that it will help to train the rest of my environment to interact with me more efficiently.
Or to rephrase this, how quickly would you be fired for multi-tasking at work?
A 2005 study by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London shows that people who allow themselves to be constantly interrupted by email and instant messaging perform slightly worse than those who are stoned on pot. Continue reading
Do you ever get frustrated when someone does not reply to your messages within 24 hours? Isn’t it fun to work with people who reply only after you’ve politely (but persistently) badgered them a few times?
As I used to be one of these overloaded individuals, I can tell you that they only reply to two types of people: those whose cooperation they need in order to get their own job done, and those who badger them persistently enough to make them feel uncomfortable or embarrassingly inefficient.
As I said, I used to be one of these people. I now consistently reply to almost all of my email within 24 hours. So how do I maintain my responsiveness?
Giles Turnbull has composed the following hilarious "prayer", to be solemnly recited by GTD practitioners before commencing the Weekly Review.
The GTD Prayer
Our lifehacks, which art in contexts,
Inbox zero be thy aim.
Thy Kinkless done.
Thy Mind Sweep fun, in @work as it is in @honeydo.
Give us this day our next action.
And forgive us our open loops, as we forgive those who delete our email.
And lead us not into web surfing.
Deliver us from IM.
For thine is the Moleskine, the Project and the Due Date
[via the Getting Things Done Yahoo group]
Merlin Mann is doing a series on keeping your inbox level down. I like what he has to say about leaving a message in your inbox without acting on it / filing it / deleting it:
Just remember that every email you read, re-read, and re-re-re-re-re-read as it sits in that big dumb pile is actually incurring mental debt on your behalf. The interest you pay on email you’re reluctant to deal with is compounded every day and, in all likelihood, it’s what’s led you to feeling like such a useless slacker today. Maybe? Think about it.