The Excess of Email

This post was inspired by the growing exasperation with email from a former boss who seems close to tracking down and inflicting harm on the creator of Outlook365 (you know who you are!). It got me thinking about my own situation.

I have surrendered and accepted defeat in my long war with email. After years of just about managing to maintain a stalemate in the battle for both my work and personal accounts my most recent job has led to this admission.

To some extent this is both a personal failure and also one of technology. I am a pretty decent user of Gmail and have an army of filters and extensions that just about keep things under control there. In the past I was an adequate user of Outlook and made use of its ‘rules’ to help prevent my inbox from total implosion. Now however I find myself in the land of Lotus Notes and am lost at sea.

I triage as best I can, and to date I am pretty sure I haven’t missed anything vital, but the emails they just keep coming and nobody seems to be creating any extra hours in the day. The fact that our security levels mean that previously prime email times like train journeys and hotel stays are out of the question also makes things a struggle. Plus I’ll be honest – I’m trying not to work at weekends and evenings as much anymore.

I was interested to read about Doug’s experiment this week where he just left his ‘out of office’ running for a month and encouraged people to contact him – if really important – by other more direct means.

It is a less extreme solution than Andy Parkhouse, founder of Delib amongst other things, has taken. Andy essentially gave up on email about six months ago. A ballsy move for a guy who runs a couple of technology companies.

He explained his process to me a little on Twitter yesterday evening;

I think the fact Andy has been able to maintain this for six months with only three (by the sounds of it relatively minor) problems says (a) a great deal about his discipline and nerve and (b) the fact that maybe there is life (and business) away from email. Maybe.

Both of these techniques remind me of something I read about how Cory Doctorow manages his breaks from email (I can’t find the original link but it is referenced in this Seth Godin piece);

“When you go on vacation, set up an autoreply that says, ‘I’m on vacation until x/x/2010. When I get back, I’m going to delete all the email that arrived while I was gone, so if this note is important, please send it to me again after that date.’”

I have tried this a couple of times and it is hugely satisfying. Unfortunately it also hugely annoyed quite a few people and I haven’t had the nerve to do it for a while. I would like to try it again some day though.

So the war has been lost and now I see myself as fighting a guerrilla campaign – picking off high value targets in my inbox and just trying to make a difference!

I’ll finish with a quote from the wonderful Lifehacker series, How I Work. Kevin Allocca from YouTube said this;

“I think the ‘Inbox Zero’ thing is really adorable. I subscribe to more of an “Inbox 4,363″ philosophy.”

Well said that man. Well said.


8 responses to “The Excess of Email”

  1. Maybe i am just lucky but I don’t get more than 20 emails per day (128 work emails when off in 10 days isn’t bad eh). I have a near inbox zero and i’ll explain how and maybe 1 gem is useful to you.

    I unsubscribed to nearly all notifications for web services.

    I only check email twice a day and will reply instantly if it takes unless then 2mins (a knock-on effect is people send far less email as they know i won’t reply immediately) THEN

    I have a few key folders: action (anything taking more than 2mins to reply to), archive, references and links (nice info but no need to respond), waiting (i emailed a reply and until i get another response i can’t action or archive).
    This was a set-up Merlin Mann explained on 43 folders site and has been working very well. Then I explicitly told my team don’t CC me for those ‘cover your butt’ type emails. Only email me if you need a reply or I need to be in the loop (then it goe’s in reference or archive). There is no need to send a ‘thank you’ email either.

    To get the ball rolling for the above I committed a morning and took ALL inbox email to a new folder called dump…. so essentially from that moment i had inbox zero to start all the above – i implore you to at least try this. Then I spent the rest of the morning moving all my email to one of the folders described above… This has really helped me… i think filtering etc only makes the problem worse. If an email is a task then move it to a task system, if it is an event then move it to the calendar (maybe with a task).

    Also I looked at who sent me the most email and thought how to tackle reducing this (typically CC’ing worry types and explained alternatives!)

    As for personal email… nobody seems to want to email me!

  2. I have a similar setup to be honest – I try and do email only at the start and end of days and long unsubscribed from everything I could but I get a lot more email and very little of it is from my team (we mainly communicate via IM) – it is the other 4000 civil servants that lay siege to my inbox. The fact I rarely reply quickly (if at all) seems to have no impact.

  3. Hi Matt, good stuff! (and thanks for referencing my post)

    Every December I do something grandly called ‘Belshaw Black Ops’ – but which is effectively steering clear of social media and personal email for a month. I can’t completely ditch work email, unfortunately.

    This was inspired by people like Cory Doctorow but more specifically danah boyd, who talks of the need to (I’m paraphrasing) reclaim your own thoughts. I find that December serves as a much needed reboot. 🙂

  4. I take a bit of time out from Fb every January and this year took a couple of months off blogging to ‘reboot’ things a bit. I don’t break with Twitter though so not that cleansing 🙂

  5. My approach to email:

    – Only check email every few hours and batch process when you do check
    – If using Gmail, only have two folders: inbox and starred items
    – When processing the inbox, deal with everything straight away or star the messages you need to come back to action later
    – Everything else gets archived (trusting Gmail’s search capabilities if you need a message later)
    – Unsubscribe from as many mailing lists as possible

    This gets me through quite a lot of the time.

    Also, take a look at The Email Game for a fun way of getting through email:

  6. The Cory Doctorow approach is slightly out of context: it’s one step in a method advocated by danah boyd and described by her at She puts a lot of stress in preparing expectations ahead of time, so the out of office message is step five, not step one. No guarantee that adopting the full method would reduce the cries of outrage, but it might be worth a try.

    It is ten years since I had to use Notes on a daily basis, but I can still feel your pain. Investing in a small flock of carrier pigeons might be an improvement on that.

  7. Yep I had read all of danah’s stuff but it was the OoO bit from Cory that appealed (after a long vacation to the US where I returned to 1000s of emails). I think neither danah nor Cory work in quite the same environment as us though 🙂

    As for Notes…well the less said the better!

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