How I’ve kept my inbox from exploding

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January 2, 2014 by juicefong

A random work post…

Your inbox is exploding, just like everyone else. It’s possible to live an alternate life, though. For one, I have somehow managed to lead a work life in which I usually only receive about a dozen or so emails each day. Yes, it is possible. Here’s what I’m doing:

1. Understand that emails support the work, but are hardly the work itself. They are a means to an end. If you come to understand your job as sitting at a desk and emailing all day, then that will be your existence. I see my job as building relationships with others, understanding their experiences and needs, advising groups and individuals on how to proceed, and producing content and opportunities to engage our staff community. You’d be silly to think this could all be accomplished just by typing out emails all day. Email supports my work as one means of communication, but I do my job with very little emailing. Lest we forget, there was a time in the working world when email did not exist and people accomplished great things! Which brings me to the second point…

2. Choose your communication medium with intention. Talking in person is best—you communicate more via body language and you can dialogue easily. You build relationships and trust most effectively when meeting in person. In the short term it can be more time consuming, but the trust you build with others now will allow you to work more easily with them in the long term. Phone or video chatting can be effective, too. For one-on-one matters, I always prefer calling out of the blue—it moves more quickly than when you fill up that arbitrary 30- or 60-minute time block because you’re looking to get alignment or an opinion and then move on. Text messages or instant messages are good ways to communicate about small things. Usually this is reserved for people with whom you work most frequently. My team uses a Yammer group, which I’ll discuss later.

Oh, and then there’s email. Email is good when a large group needs to be looped in or when you need a good clear record for reference. It often resembles electronic letter writing, though—people tend to write long emails and you can’t always understand the tone. Email is also possible any time of day—equally a blessing and a curse. But your typical email volley can often be resolved with a phone call in a fraction of the time. Many people just resort to email because they don’t have established relationships that make it more comfortable to just pick up the phone or send a text message. When I have a long list of issues or actions to resolve, I pick up the phone and start dialing. You’d be amazed at how quickly things get done, and how happy people are to hear from you.

3. When you must email, keep it short. Very short. I have a general rule of trying to keep my emails under three sentences. If it needs to be longer than that, chances are you’d benefit from a phone call or stopping by someone’s desk anyway. I use emails either to address a quick matter, or to find out if a longer conversation is merited. But I avoid trying to make the email exchange itself, the conversation.

Keeping emails brief forces me to be direct and to the point. Limit the long emails you send (there will still be some), and deal with the rest with brevity or via other means of communication. And when you start sending shorter emails, guess what—you start receiving shorter emails, too. I hope you see that spending time building relationships (in person, on the phone) allows you to communicate with more brevity and directness. These strategies work together.

4. Don’t get sucked in by those big chains. You know the ones—there are four people on them at first, and now there are 12. All that back and forth usually suggests the group is looking for perspectives. You have a few options: 1) Offer your opinion, then bow out. 2) Call the decision maker to offer your opinion. 3) Ignore it completely. But really, most people do this: 4) Offer your opinion, then see what people say, then push back by re-stating your opinion, then see what people say again and maybe re-state what you said a third time, in email #23 of this monstrous chain.

Let go. It’s good for others to seek these diverse opinions, but someone’s eventually gotta step up, weigh the risks, and make a call. And if you’re not that decision maker, the weight of that chain does not need to rest on your shoulders. Offer your opinion and then get outta Dodge.

A lot of people are so eager to be part of every discussion, every decision, and they really don’t need to be. Some kind of FOMO (fear of missing out), I think. Let it go.

5. When the tone gets weird, pick up the phone. Emails can start to get tense when you don’t understand the tone, the context, the subtext or the emotions of the person on the other end. When this happens, stop emailing, immediately. Pick up the phone.

6. My team has replaced team emails with a Yammer group. Yammer is our preferred social enterprise network, so look it up if you’re not familiar. My four-person team uses one public and one private Yammer group as our default written communication method. If you look at your inbox, it’s heavily weighted with emails from your closest co-workers, your own team, your boss, those kinds of people. That volume of email accounted for about 30% of my inbox and has now virtually disappeared with Yammer.

Some might argue I’m just replacing one inbox for another. Yes, it is still one more place, but it actually makes things more efficient in several ways: 1) Yammer’s small status update box, encourages everyone to be brief and direct. Less fluff, more straight to the point. 2) It takes communication out of silos. Email exchanges are private by nature. When we communicate via our Yammer group, it allows us to make connections or help each other out more easily. 3) Yammer threads (like Facebook posts and comments) are much easier to read and comprehend than long chains of emails. 4) The “like” button reduces all those unnecessary close-out email replies. With one click, I’ve acknowledged what’s being communicated. Moving on.

Not everyone is part of a strong social enterprise network, but if you are, this is worth a shot. You can organize by team or across teams for a specific project. Make your group public and you can invite others into conversations when necessary. Make a separate private group and you can have a back channel and still hold information close to your chest when needed.


That’s all I’ve got for you. Basically, start with mindset: Do not come to see your work as your inbox. I guarantee you’d be better at your job if you had better relationships, and that’s not coming through emails. Decide when email is best and when it is not. Keep it short. Let go of your desire to be involved in everything, thereby eliminating many of those big email chains. When something seems off, don’t continue through email. Pick up the phone and settle it. If you want to get advanced, use a social enterprise network like Yammer, and you’ll find yourself communicating in a whole new way.

I am by no means perfect at my job, but I’ve found a way to be effective while not drowning in my inbox. Having time and space in my day to think, to connect with others, to stimulate ideas and solutions—is very important to me, and probably to you, too. What I’ve offered above is working for me. I hope it can be of help to you in your quest for email liberation. Godspeed.

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