Why is my Inbox Taking up My Day?


I started out in life as an English major and in one of my classes we read a poem by Richard Wilbur that griped about “the punctual rape of every blesséd day.” I wrote a question mark in the margin; at 20, I had NO idea what the phrase meant. One day about 10 years later I cracked open the book and re-read the poem; by 30, I knew EXACTLY what it meant. Applied to business, it refers to all the productivity killers that prevent us from doing what we love, what we’re passionate about, what our stakeholders most need from us . . . and we end up taking the work home with us when we should be striving for a healthier work/life balance. 

Atlassian, a company that sells productivity software, published a study a few years ago about the things that are the biggest time wasters at work. The top three are unnecessary emails, unproductive meetings, and people who drop in without an appointment and interrupt you. I’m going to focus on just one of these: Email! It’s a great tool, but one that is frequently abused. We may or may not be able to control the email coming into our inboxes, but let’s avoid abusing our recipients and their time. 

Here are some tips that can help save our readers (and ourselves) a great deal of time:

  • Reply All: Before “replying all,” make sure that everyone on the To list is empowered and able to act on your request.
  • Have a Point: If you don’t have a request (for information, for a decision, for answers), consider whether you need to send an email at all; if you can’t identify an active thing you want readers to do after they read your email, you may want to save their inbox space and their time. 
  • FW: FW: FW: Including a new person on a long thread of an ongoing conversation isn’t helpful, especially without giving some idea of what you want the new person to do about the topic; it would be a more responsible use of the reader’s time if you summarized the thread in one or two sentences, and then asked for what you need next. No one wants to scroll all the way to the bottom, read up the thread, only to find out that the reason they just did that isn’t clear.
  • Attachments: If the reader needs the attachment (and think carefully about whether that’s true), summarize it in a sentence or two and, no later than the third sentence, tell the reader what you need them to do with the attachment.
  • Get to the Point: mail readers want value immediately. In order to engage their attention, your main point needs to appear as your first or second sentence. 
  • Edit and Proof: Never send out your first draft. We all multi-task every day, or we tap-tap-tap-SEND, and then realize, “Ugh. I shouldn’t have said it just that way.” At a minimum, it’s a healthy practice to take your hands off the keyboard, read over what you’ve written, and make sure you’re not sending anything that would limit your prospects, inadvertently cause offense, or simply fail to represent yourself well. Yes, revision takes a little longer, but it saves having to send another email to apologize for or explain the first.

If you begin to feel like responding to email has become your fulltime job, it’s a good idea to compartmentalize your day. For example, you might reserve the first hour of the business day for email, and then come back to it for the last half hour of the day. This requires setting expectations with people who email you frequently. Think about prioritizing the human interactions you’re having with fellows, children, or meeting attendees, rather than attempting to respond to every email as soon as it comes in. And think about how focusing your attention on people makes them feel better than if you interrupt the flow to glance down at your phone! 

Many thanks to Vicki Daughtry for sharing these insights!