How Do You Solve a Problem Like Your Inbox?

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, a best-selling author and top-ranked professor at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, didn’t sugarcoat his recent advice about email. “Ignoring email is an act of incivility,” Grant wrote in a New York Times opinion column, “No, You Can’t Ignore Email. It’s Rude.” Being overwhelmed is no excuse — we all get too much email, Grant writes. “Volume is not an excuse for not replying.” There’s a growing body of evidence, he adds, “that if you care about being good at your job, your inbox should be a priority.”

email etiquette

Adam Grant

The column stirred up howls of protest in the comments section of the New York Times, which closed comments on the column after receiving more than 500 responses. Some commenters agreed with Grant, but most thought he was being unrealistic. “I view email as an important communication tool, but widespread abuse has turned it into a major impediment to productivity,” wrote one. “I get such a high volume of email that I could spend my entire workday managing and responding to it without accomplishing any of my ‘real’ work.”

The image that comes to mind when I think of my own inbox is from the I Love Lucy episode, Job Switching, where Lucy and Ethel are working in a candy factory, wrapping chocolates in paper. They’re doing fine — until the production line speeds up. Soon, the chocolates are coming so fast that the pair start stuffing them into their mouths, their pockets and their hats, anywhere and everywhere except into wrappers. The task is impossible, so they give up.

Unlike chocolates, however, emails don’t come in the same shape and size, and don’t all need to be treated in the same way. Grant makes it clear that he is talking about personal emails, not the tsunami of unsolicited marketing messages that just keep coming. Even in dealing with personal emails, “we all need to set boundaries,” he writes. “I’m not saying you have to answer every email. If senders aren’t considerate enough to do their homework and ask a question you’re qualified to answer, you don’t owe them anything back.”

But like it or not, “email is central to most jobs,” Grant writes, citing research from Microsoft about how the digital habits of teams affect performance. The clearest warning sign of an ineffective manager, the research showed, was being slow to answer emails.  The emails in the research, it should be noted, are those between the manager and their direct reports.

If being good at your job requires paying attention to messages that matter, how do you remain productive and still deal with a high volume of messages?

The answer probably isn’t to keep checking your email — the average American checks their phone 47 times a day and half of us check our phones in the middle of the night, according to Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up With Your Phone.  The price we are pay is in shorter attention spans, poorer memories, and increased stress, she writes.

email

In her book “How to Break Up With Your Phone,” Catherine Price offers email advice. (Colin Lenton photo)

Like Grant, Price suggests setting boundaries. Here are five tips for dealing with email from Price’s book and a Convene interview.

  • For a week, take the time to unsubscribe yourself from any email list you don’t want to be on. Or find an app that automatically unsubscribes you from email, like Unroll.me, and install it.
  • Set up an app-blocker that give you access to your inbox only during certain times a day. “Then, set up an auto response that says, ‘I check my email at these times; if you need me immediately, just call,” Price said. Or text.
  •  Use a “Needs Response” email folder. Then, “when you do look at your email, you don’t feel overwhelmed by the sight of your entire inbox,” Price wrote.
  •  Set up a VIP list of people whose email you don’t want to miss.
  • Consider whether email is the place for your message. “Email really is a replacement for writing letters,” Price said. “It’s not a replacement for collaboration. In person is probably the best thing for collaboration, but in cases where that’s not possible you should think of other things like texting, if it’s not a big chain, or Slack.”

Not all of these tips will work in every workplace, but over time, exerting more control over email could catch on. There is an upside to restrictions like the GDPR, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which sets controls over sending unsolicited emails to EU residents and how their data can be used, Joe Colangelo, the CEO of Bear Analytics, told Convene last year. The prevailing attitude toward email in the U.S. has been: “We’re just going to keep getting a ton of terrible emails and it’s only going to increase,” along with “Your email is out there for anybody to hack,” Colangelo said. But if a new way of thinking about data took hold, he said, “we could see an environment where emails matter more, and there’s less spam.”

“What we really need to do,” Grant wrote, “is to make email something we think carefully about before sending, and therefore feel genuinely bad ignoring.”

I Love Lucy Switching Jobs episode clip