Email Isn’t the Problem; You Are

Jenna Wortham has a problem with email. Writing on the New York TimesBits Blog, she describes how she currently uses email. It sounds awful. “One morning last week, I sat at my desk and stared at my Gmail in-box; 40,000 unread e-mails stared back. (That big number is a function of my life as a writer, and of having five different accounts, work and personal.)” When she tries to deal with the problem one morning, she doesn’t get far. “I typed brief confirmations for various meetings, sent long-overdue R.S.V.P.’s and replied to a few friends who had sent warm notes of hello. In an hour, I worked my way through roughly 100 e-mails.” At that rate, getting through her 40,000 messages would take over two weeks of straight work. It’s no wonder Ms. Wortham is left asking, “Where have we gone wrong?”.

There’s a simple answer: Ms. Wortham, you need a lesson in productivity. The first step is to find a way to filter and redirect those messages that aren’t important or don’t need immediate attention. Filter mass messages (from companies, non-profits and so on) into a separate folder. Do the same for messages where you are CC’ed. The second step is to identify those messages that demand your attention the most. Set up a folder that holds just messages from important people. This will help you look quickly at only important messages.

Third, set up a system to mark messages based on what you need to do with them. Here is a great method for doing this. If you don’t have time to handle email, ask yourself this simple question: Would I have time to handle these tasks if I had to communicate with people in another way? Receiving phone calls equal in number to emails would quickly illustrate how helpful email is.

Fourth, start reevaluating how you are using email on a fundamental level. Having five email addresses is absurd. Trying to stay actively involved on too many projects may not be possible. Don’t blame email for that; there are limits to how productive one individual can be. If anyone is to blame, it’s your company for not providing you with a personal assistant. If that suggestion sounds laughable (“I don’t need a personal assistant!”), then you need to reassess how valuable you think you are. You clearly aren’t vital to every project you are involved with. Failing to answer emails and still having the company function indicates how unimportant your involvement is to many of these projects.

It is natural to worry that a new system for filtering email may filter out some messages that are important. You might be reasonably worried that you will miss important information. But guess what? If you have 40,000 unread emails, you are already missing important messages! People will adapt to you being bad at email and contact you in other ways. Use this as a wakeup call. Worrying about email (and failing to use it well) means you are involved in projects where your input isn’t needed.

To all users exhausted by email: Pardon me if I sound glib, but I do not understand the rants against email. A system to manage communication is necessary no matter how you are communicating. You must develop a system that works for you with any communication channel you use. We let calls to go voicemail. We put our phones on silent. We let paper mail pile up. And we close office doors or work somewhere else if we don’t want to be interrupted. The same methods can and must be applied to email. Managing communication is the task at hand, and each channel gives us unique tools to do this. Use the tools to handle email, and don’t be the carpenter who blames her tools when things don’t work out as desired.

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