I once had a brain that could clamp down on details and store a tardy email response at the forefront of my brain until I clicked, “Send.” Now the need to follow up on work emails disturbs my REM sleep like the “I slept through my final exam” nightmare. I know I am hardly alone.
According to the Radicati Group, a technology market research firm in Palo Alto, California, the average corporate email user received 126 email messages per day in 2006, which was an increase of 55 percent since 2003. They speculate that if workers spend an average of one minute reading and responding to each message, an inundation of email traffic can consume more than a quarter of the eight hour work day. With an average number of emails sent per day to be around 183 billion in 2006, and that number increasing daily, I wonder what email users do? One answer is to file email bankruptcy.
That’s what Rebecca Burns did. As Editor in Chief of Atlanta Magazine, she had two major projects piled on top of her daily responsibilities and an inbox with 3,000 unanswered emails. When she became sick over the holidays last year, everything compounded, so she sent a mass email to coworkers and freelancers.
“[There was] a huge backlog that I would never be able to deal with. The email stated this was a one-time deal and that if I owed anyone email, they should contact me because I would never get through the inbox to get back to them … then I emptied the inbox and moved on.”
The idea of selecting all and hitting “Delete” might feel like freedom for some, but for women like Rebecca (who explained with an email back to me only three days later), filing email bankruptcy isn’t routine.
“I don’t plan to do it again but it was a great way to get caught up … I am normally very organized and make a habit of cleaning out my email box and getting caught up once a week. In fact, I am writing back to you as part of that process,” she wrote.
Email bankruptcy is somewhat of a trend. At the end of 2007, the New York Times included “email bankruptcy” in a list of new words that became a part of the national conversation during the year.
The term may have first been coined in 1999 by an MIT professor Sherry Turkle who studies the relationship between people and technology. It became popularized a few years later when Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig filed his own high-profile high-tech bankruptcy. Other notable email bankruptcies have since made the news, including that of venture capitalist Fred Wilson.
Radicati says there is no guarantee that users actually read the messages that are the most important, and that if email traffic continues at this rate, the average corporate worker will spend 41 percent of the workday managing email in 2009.
This made me mull over my own system for dealing with email, which admittedly, is no system at all. As a writer, the only relief I find from email interruptions is to shut down my email program altogether while on deadline. Because when my email is on, messages pop up like instant messenger in the bottom right hand of my screen, making them impossible to ignore. My own overcrowded inbox needed some discipline.
Create Your Own System
I leaned on our systems and network administrator (this would be the equivalent of a financial advisor if I were trying to avoid real-life bankruptcy) to find out what I could do to keep the email problem under control. After our talk and considering the nature of my job, I decided to set aside ten minutes every two hours to answer emails. Once I answered ten minutes worth of email, I could turn off my email and get back to writing.
Don’t “Reply to All”
I chuckled my way through hilarious emails in the 90s, but now I try to know better. Instead of replying to all (which can lead to a long line of unnecessary communication), I try to get straight to the point (if there is one) and go to the person who can do something about it (if something needs to be done). Of course, this is challenging when an email is too hysterical to keep to myself, but I try to keep sending out my own humor to Fridays only. (To keep the bankruptcy metaphor going, this is like eating lunch out only one day per week to keep spending under control.)
Rules are all the rage, and most techies use this feature in Outlook to make their email lives easier. Rules make sure that certain emails get special attention (or no attention at all), and those emails are moved to a designated folder. I also asked our systems and network administrator to help me create rules for those emails that I don’t need to answer right away, like press releases from organizations, notifications when an article of mine publishes, and the long list of “Take Action” emails that I receive for the myriad causes I like to track. Now I get to choose the time I want to go to the folder and read up on new information or take action without disrupting my creative process.
Organize Folders and Keep Them Clean
My preferred system for a massive delete mission is to arrange my email inbox by “From” and see what emails from whom can be deleted. Then I create folders by subject for those emails I need to file away for reference. For example, for company protocol, I made the folder “Protocol,” and for emails pertaining to research, I made a folder called, “Articles to Do.” The trick is to set aside time to clean out those folders, which I like to do every six months.
There is always going to be an overload of information, and a new technology around the corner that is anxious to deliver us some more. The rate of email bankruptcy is likely to climb as fast as real-life bankruptcy has in recent years. I am going to schedule time for cleaning out my inbox in hopes of avoiding the Chapter 11 fate myself. Back at Atlanta Magazine, Rebecca is trying to keep her head above water. “I still get 300–500 emails a day,” she told me.