My Inbox Challenge

Inbox zero-2

Yesterday I received 177 emails by 5:00pm. I haven’t counted today but I’m sure I’m pushing that number already. I’ve received 1101 in the past seven days.

That’s a lot of information.

If I work 50 hours per week (fairly typical) that means I had 3,000 minutes of working time in the last week. That’s one email every three minutes. If it takes me one minute to read, think about, and respond to each email that means 1/3 of my working time is spent simply managing the inbox. Many of these messages take much longer than 1 minute to respond.

And here’s the crazy part: I am RUTHLESS about what I allow to hit my inbox. I use RSS and Twitter to manage the news and other informational content I want to read. I unsubscribe from everything that I can and receive my information via others means. That means that 95% or more of those 1101 emails are real people sending emails to me, not marketing emails or news information.

I have another 500-1000 emails per week that come directly from Basecamp, our project management system.

Many have it far worse than I do.

I understand that a HUGE part of my job is to manage the flow of information in my organization, with clients, with family and friends, etc. I don’t think the problem is email itself. The technology is great.

Ten years ago I loved email. It enabled me to get work done quickly and efficiently from anywhere. It enabled me to communicate to clients in ways that made everything work more smoothly. It gave access to information I wanted in terms of newsletters and email updates.

But today it seems that inboxes are a problem for all of us.

The problem, as I see it, is in the expectations that email has created and the misuse that has happens in the process. Here are a few of the more obvious issues:

  • Email makes it too easy to assign work to people without any discussion or clarification that needs to happen before work begins.
  • Email creates expectations of response without acknowledgement from both parties that they even want to have a conversation.
  • Email is easy and free so when in doubt we just send another. We don’t even realize we are adding to the noise.
  • Email makes us feel like we are accomplishing things when we aren’t; answering an email just to answer isn’t doing anything.
  • People treat email like it is a discussion platform. This might be the worst problem. Email is great for conveying information and answering specific questions. But as soon as you need to discuss something back and forth it’s a lousy tool.

And before I get too high on the horse: I can be as guilty as anyone. I haven’t mastered email. I fall into every one of the traps above.

So I’m trying to implement a few things myself and with the Blue Ocean Ideas team that I am hoping will help:

  • Trying to be very judicious about what I send and why. Am I helping to solve the problem, answer the question, or contribute in a way that’s going to be helpful or am I just adding to the noise? Am I just sending a message to get something off of my plate or am I adding value.
  • Encouraging our team to pick the right mode of communicating. If you are getting into a long email chain that is getting more confusing with each new email just pick up the phone. It will save time but also relational capital.
  • Developing awareness of when I am working on projects that will add value and when I am just managing the inbox. If I’m spending too much time managing the inbox I’m not getting to other higher value work that I do.
  • Clarifying with clients how important it is that we have some ground rules with communication and that we try to hold a high standard for how we communicate. I can’t solve my inbox challenge with work on my part alone. I can help reduce it but I need help on the other end as well.
  • Using email for follow up and execution but rarely if ever in initiating new projects via email. For me, that takes talking.

These might seem simple but they are difficult to actually practice. We’ve been dealing with email for a long time now. Habits are hard to break.

What are some of the communication challenges you face when managing your inbox?

Keep moving forward,



Written by

I am the CEO of Blue Ocean Ideas, a creative agency in Baltimore, Maryland. My job is to clarify the strategy and take care of my team. I am married to the beautiful Elise Rittler and we have four great kids. When I’m not at Blue Ocean Ideas or with my family I am riding a bike, running, playing ultimate frisbee, eating, or sleeping. There is a little more about me here.

2 Responses to “My Inbox Challenge”

By Ryan Blace - 4 May 2013

I’ve long though email is more of a detriment than a help. In the workplace, email is misused as a notification system, task tracker, discussion board, collaboration space, calendar, etc… When there is almost always a better special purpose tool available (Jira, Basecamp, Jabber, RSS, a whiteboard, vBulletin, GoToMeeting, etc).

I’d be curious to see if a team could survive if email wasn’t allowed and you had to instead use a suite of more specialized tools.

By Greg Rittler - 7 May 2013

Ryan- I agree. Email is the go to tool for almost anything it seems regardless of whether it makes sense or not.

Our team uses Basecamp almost exclusively for communication and collaboration. It has it’s own set of issues but at least it helps us keep todo’s in todo lists, milestones on a calendar, notes in discussions, etc. The major flaw is in prioritization. There’s no good way (at least that we have found) to prioritize tasks in Basecamp.

I think if people just thought: “Is this the best way to communicate this to the people I need to?” it would go a long way to helping solve the problem.

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