Forget about "inbox zero": The real problem with email isn't your unread messages

Salon talks to the author of "Unsubscribe" about email anxiety, productivity sappers and email "completion bias"

Published November 6, 2016 8:30AM (EST)


I currently have over 1 million unread messages in my Gmail inbox — a horrifying number I almost never contemplate because it’s just too scary. As a freelance writer, I check my email often, but I never feel like I’ve mastered it, and I’m not the only one who feels similarly overwhelmed. Enter "Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done" by Jocelyn K. Glei, an invaluable new guide to navigating how we manage sending and receiving email.

Glei posits that it’s not our fault — email is addictive, and science backs this up. There’s a system of “random rewards” that makes us feel accomplished when we hit “send,” even when we know the recipient will soon be right back in our inbox. But we don't have to succumb; we can save time, aggravation and those never-ending email chains by setting expectations for readers and ourselves.

Glei provides practical solutions regarding who to prioritize (and how), when to check email (hint: not every five minutes), sending emails that get responses and how gaining control of our inboxes frees up more time for our most important work.

I spoke with Glei about why email is so addictive, why you need an email schedule, how to overcome the “negativity bias,” when to shorten your emails and why inbox zero isn’t a worthy goal.

When did you first realize that email overwhelm was such a big problem for so many people? Have you had to work on following the advice that you recommend in your book, or has this always come easy for you?

I realized in the big picture, distraction and information overload in general is a huge problem for everyone. I dug into some of the stats on how much time people were spending on email, and the numbers were pretty crazy. On average, people are spending 28 percent of their work week on email; they’re checking their email 11 times an hour and processing 122 messages a day. A British study found that switching from email to something else and back to email again actually lowered people’s IQ the equivalent of 10 points. [They made the comparison] of smoking pot and then going to work. It’s leaving us in a situation where you feel very busy and you feel like you’re doing things, but then you get to the end of the work day and you feel like you didn’t do anything meaningful.

Have you found yourself sometimes feeling stressed out about your inbox?

One hundred percent. If you look at circadian rhythms, most people follow a standard rhythm. Typically that means that the time you’ll have most energy and attention to get work done is between 9 and 11 a.m., or for some, 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. But that’s exactly the time when most of us are spending a huge amount of energy on email. What happens is you start the day with email and then you push off your most important work until 3 or 4 p.m., when you have no energy and according to circadian rhythms, that’s when your energy usually dips.

We have this screwed-up system which I found myself falling into, where you’re doing your least important work during your peak mental and creative time, and you’re trying to do your most important work during your lowest energy and creative time of the day. I think email is the biggest factor in that so I wanted to figure out what was behind it and how you could implement some changes that would help.

One of those changes is you suggest setting up an email schedule. Why is that so important?

There was a study done that looked at how people email. It identified two types of people, batchers and reactors. A lot of us are reactors—you’re nibbling on your email throughout the day, driven by notifications. You’re reacting to the email rather than controlling it. The second group is batchers, who deliberately set aside certain times of day in which they’ll check their email and confine their email to those windows. What they found in the study is the people who checked their email in batches were significantly more productive, happier and less stressed out.

What about when you’ve made this schedule but then you have down time, in between meetings or waiting at a doctor’s office?

It depends on the person. One of the reasons I have so much trouble checking email in the morning sometimes is that I’ll get some unexpected email and it’ll incite a lot of anxiety and I won’t be able to stop thinking about whatever that thing is. That’s not the case for everyone. Some people can look at something and dismiss it and move on. So I think you have to be sensitive to your own disposition.

It’s really helpful to send what I call "expectation setting" replies to people. One of the challenges is everyone who emails you feels that their message is the most important thing. It’s very urgent to them but they have no concept of all the other things you have to do. Maybe someone emailed you this morning and expects you to get back to them in five minutes. You can email them back and say “I’m stuck in meetings all day and I’ll get back to you at the end of the day or tomorrow morning, but this is important to me and it’s on my to-do list.” To situate that request within some context for them is important and allows you to let that anxiety go.

We forget that we’re setting expectations by responding to every email within five minutes. Once you’re in the habit of checking your email constantly, it’s quite difficult to break free from. You have to set up little windows of not checking email. You don’t have to say I’m not going to check email for three hours. It could be one hour. If you’ve decided I’m not going to check email during this time, you need to try to stick to that practice because it does become easier.

You write about the negativity bias when it comes to email, meaning that the recipient is predisposed to read your email more negatively than you intended. Can you talk about how that works and how people can compensate for that while still sounding like themselves?

Daniel Goldman, the father of the term “emotional intelligence,” was doing research and realized that every email, between being sent and being received, gets downgraded a positivity notch. You don't have the tone or gesture that shapes someone’s meaning for you. That’s coupled with what I call the busy bias. When everyone is busy a key part of getting people to pay attention is to be respectful of their time. When you’re emailing anyone that you work with, empathize with their workload; understand that your email sits somewhere on this continuum of their to-do list.

It could be as little as saying “thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to consider my request.” On a very basic tactical level, never use imperative phrasing, such as “do that, finish this.” You want to use more conditional language, asking, “Could you do this for me?” so that they feel less like you’re yelling at them and more like they have some agency in the task.

Also, express gratitude. I was looking at some research about gratitude, and the workplace was the last place where people were likely to express appreciation. They were more likely to express it to family members and friends; even the mail carrier ranked higher than coworkers. Sometimes, especially when we think about sending a thank-you email, we think, I’ll save that inbox clutter, they don’t need another email, but actually appreciation is one of the single most sustainable motivators at work. There was a study that found that people were twice as likely to help you again and also twice as likely to help anyone again if you said thank you or expressed your appreciation.

I often draft an email, think I’ve sent it and realize much later that I forgot to send it. Do you have suggestions for people who want to batch their replies but make sure they actually get sent?

There’s an app called Boomerang, where you can schedule when your emails are going to go out so you can process it now and send it at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning. The other option is to do a literal “to send” folder and make it part of your morning ritual to send them onward. Especially if you’re cold calling or extending a particular ask, the most effective time seems to be extremely early in the morning or early evening or sometimes on weekends, or any time that’s outside of the normal work week. That seems to get things more noticed.

Sometimes email is not the right tool for a response, even if you’re responding to someone else’s email. Do we default to email when in person or by phone would be better?

I feel like we’re all sort of in this zombie state about email where we use it but don’t spend a lot of time about being particularly conscious about it, and it results in lazy behavior. A lot of times you get so focused on lowering that unread message count, you’ll respond to someone but you won’t respond in full. You know they’ll have to write back again, but you just want to get it out of your face. I advocate a lot for people not doing that and trying as much as possible to close the conversation with every email. If you can end the email and give someone all the information they need so they can say yes or no and move on, that’s what you want to do in all instances. It definitely is more work but if you’re looking at it from the perspective of, now we’re not going to have 10 more emails back and forth about this, it becomes a little more appealing.

We’ve gotten so used to typing communication, it’s easy to forget that it’s frequently less efficient than just talking to someone. I found myself doing a lot of that when I was working at a crazy startup job. I would get long emails and I would pick up the phone and call people and they would [be surprised]. When you call someone and they don’t expect it, it’s scary these days. Email is not good for brainstorming, it’s not good for debating complex details, it’s not good for any contentious discussions. Often [it’s a matter of] a two- or five-minute conversation versus a 20 exchanged email dialogue, and maybe one where things are going to get more confrontational.

You write in the book that the goal of inbox zero is often misguided. Why do you think we’ve been so seduced by this idea of inbox zero?

The seduction and allure of inbox zero comes out of some actual brain chemistry. Scientists just discovered what they call completion bias, this idea that when we complete a task it’s a hit of dopamine and that makes us want to repeat that behavior, to complete a task again so you can get that hit again. It predisposes us to complete short, easy-to-complete tasks. Getting to inbox zero is the ultimate completion.

We’re experiencing this motion sickness from how quickly things have changed in the last 10 or 20 years to moving from a world where we dealt with physical things to a fully digital world. In the digital world there’s an infinite amount of communication that you can get. But you are a physical self, you can only deal with so much, you’re not a computer. You’re not something that can go nonstop without a break.

Inbox zero was popularized by Merlin Mann before everyone had email on their smartphones. We didn’t have Facebook and Twitter and Slack, all of these other channels that also push messages at us. It’s worth considering whether inbox zero is a relevant or constructive goal for you. Everyone who has access to the Internet probably has access to you. They can find your email, and that random person who’s emailing you with a pitch is not the same as your boss.

Do you think the rules you’re talking about with email can also apply to social media?

All of social media, with the notifications and random surprises, fits into those models and is similarly addicting. My personal strategy is I like to work in focus blocks, so it can be 45, 60 or 90 minutes. Then when I have a 15- or 30-minute break, I can check social media. I use that more as a reward for focus periods.

If you have to maintain any sort of social media presence for your professional persona or your business, I highly recommend using an app like Buffer to schedule your social media in advance. For Slack or other messaging apps, one of the really important things to remember is that when you have those things on in the background as your primary screen it drains your energy and your focus, even if you’re not looking at them. Research has shown that your brain still monitors them. It’s helpful even if you can move your email and Slack notifications to a second monitor or your phone.

There’s been research around this; the more clear your primary work screen is the more serene and focused your mind is. Multitasking really taxes your short-term memory. When you switch from whatever you’re trying to focus on and check your email and come back, you frequently don’t remember what you were doing.

You stress the importance of being concise in emails. Is there a rule to know when you’ve trimmed it enough?

The best rule is to preview all of your emails on a phone. Especially when you’re writing an important ask email or cold calling someone, you tend to write those really important emails on a laptop or a desktop. What happens is, when you’re looking at it, you don’t really understand what it would look like on a phone. Most emails get opened for the first time on a mobile phone. You’ve got to get someone’s attention right then. Maybe they’ll respond then, maybe they’ll respond later, but if they look at it on their phone and it looks like "War and Peace," they’re probably not going to look at it again. It’s a gut check; if this looks really overwhelming, someone is probably not going to pay attention.

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

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