‘Radioactive’ is definitely how I would describe my inbox some days. You know when you’re trying to get caught up, and every time you delete something, the window refreshes and three more messages come in behind it? It’s metastasizing! I set a date to fight my way back to Inbox Zero, and this image came to me. In the endless search for a form of novelty that will inspire me through another day of drudgery, I came up with a little game.
Look at the total number of messages in your inbox. Write it down.
Vow that you’ll cut that number in half over the next hour. What will that number be?
In the next hour, you’ll cut it in half again.
In the next hour, you’ll cut it in half yet again.
(My husband points out that with a half-life, you never really get to zero, but let’s call it close enough).
Start with the easy stuff, just like you answer the easy questions first on a timed test. Gradually work your way through the middle, and save the complicated stuff for last. The easiest decisions get the least time, and the tougher stuff that needs your full concentration gets the most.
The logic behind this is that not all messages are equally salient, even though they look like they are. One of the worst features of email is that everything gets an identical line, no matter how long the message is, who it’s from, how important it is, how many attachments it has, or how long it’s been hanging around. It’s not obvious which messages are most deserving of our attention. The bulk junk buries the valuable stuff, just like junk paper mail can pile up and obscure our bills, checks, and gift cards.
The half-life method presumes that the more messages you have, the more likely the majority of them are relatively unimportant. If they really were both important and urgent, the senders would have found another way to track you down, either by phone, certified mail, or Men in Black knocking on your door.
Let me pause and say that it’s pretty common these days for people to have thousands of unopened emails. I’ve heard numbers above ten thousand from several people. Not only that, but those with the largest backlog tend to have extra accounts which are also filling up. It’s like maxing out a credit card and opening a new one.
Back in the Nineties, if you had more than a certain amount of email in your inbox, it would FILL UP. Anyone who sent you anything would get a message that it had bounced back. Two things fixed that problem: social media, and the advent of ludicrous amounts of free storage. You can have a gigabyte of mail now, no problem. That was technologically impossible twenty years ago.
Also back in the Nineties, if you got email at all, it was almost guaranteed to be from a personal friend. You looked forward to it. Maybe, every now and then, there might even be an attached digital photo, just for you.
Now, almost all mail is bulk junk. Every possible brand wants you to sign up at every possible transaction. They try to bribe you with a discount or a coupon. Then, each and every one of them sends you at least one message, each and every day.
The worst are the political lists that will send fundraising email as often as three to five times a day.
Everyone is battling for the top spot in your mental bandwidth, trying to flag down your attention, not realizing that they’re contributing to the problem. It’s like when one person stands up at the stadium and blocks the view of everyone in the back.
Here’s how to blast through the detritus:
If you can’t bring yourself to unsubscribe or delete thousands of messages, you can move them to a folder for “later.”
An overflowing inbox is solid proof that you’re receiving more than you can process.
I do my daily unsubscribe while paying attention to something else, generally an audio book or podcast. Along with that, I get several news roundups. I go through those by clicking the links and bookmarking the relevant articles, then deleting the email.
This is where the second round of processing starts. The easiest layer to eliminate is stuff that’s expired. In my inbox, that’s coupons from Lyft and a couple of restaurants, notifications of upcoming concerts, and invitations to other events that I won’t be attending. Next are things that are relevant and interesting, but don’t need a response. Usually we’re saving them because we need to record a piece of information.
See that it takes slightly longer to do this administrative stuff, but it often can be done while doing something entertaining in the background.
After this second layer, there will start to be messages that deserve a response. They can be complicated for several reasons. It can actually help to sort these by WHY they need more time and effort:
Often, with the difficult under-layer, it can help to switch channels. Just because a message came through email does not mean an email response is required. Much of the time, it can be easier to pick up the phone and have a discussion. What might have taken half an hour by email, resulting in half a dozen messages back and forth, could often be resolved with a three-minute phone call. Of course, many of us dread business calls even more than we dread email. The impending threat of a phone call, in this case, may be enough to motivate us to type out a reply. Anything to avoid voice contact, or, worse, a voicemail.
When I don’t know what to do or how to handle a question, like in a stuck plot point, I will write a list of what I don’t know. What piece of information would make this clear? It’s totally fair to reply to a confusing message with a question, or even a bullet-pointed list of questions.
It’s also legit to dash off a quick reply to someone, saying, “I miss you. Sorry I haven’t written back.” If you have a social email from someone you want to stay in better touch with, maybe write back in a format that you prefer. Text message? Chat? Meet in person? Remember that “the phone works both ways” and if this person has been content to wait weeks, months, or years without hearing from you, then maybe they haven’t been sobbing through a roll of paper towels awaiting your reply. Lower the emotional bar if that makes it easier.
The last-ditch method for dealing with an out-of-control inbox is to tell someone. Find a buddy. Agree that you and your accomplice will sit together and blast through your backlogs together. Maybe you can even switch seats and write some of each other’s replies, or help identify obsolete stuff.
There’s also always “email bankruptcy.” Just delete everything and email everyone you know, asking to re-send anything that was truly important. Many of us feel like we could never get away with that, but honestly, is it worse for your reputation than ignoring unopened messages entirely?
My rough bottom-of-the-barrel day started with sixteen messages. Using the half-life method, that would be eight in the first hour, four in the second hour, and two in the third. About eight minutes per message in the first round, fifteen minutes per message in the second round, and half an hour for the last two. Considering that these messages included forms, polls, spreadsheets, slide shows, meeting invites, and a list of phone calls, it worked out that this was a pretty solid estimate.
If only I hadn’t received eleven more messages during that time slot...
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.