Voice Over - Harden Up, The Email Edition

Why do I keep losing my shit every time I peer over your shoulder and see the 3000 unread emails in your Inbox? Because on this one topic – and probably only this one topic – I am right, and you are wrong. There is no room for grey or whataboutism or moral equivalency or personal preference or whatever intellectual rathole you want to take me down on this topic. If you can’t control your Inbox like an adult, we should take it from you.

Last year, McKinsey estimated that white collar employees spend 28% of their workweek managing email. Harvard estimates that over 40% of our email is absolute garbage… it’s FYIs we don’t need, long ridiculously convoluted threads that would have taken 5 minutes to sort on the phone, conversations we’ve been looped into for which we honestly have no right or need to participate, issues that were resolved somewhere in that thread long before we even got to read it. Of the 3000 emails in your Inbox, #science says 1200 are garbage and 1750 have been overtaken by events while the damn thing sat in your Inbox.

In the past, I’ve tackled ways to just say no to email and methods to reduce its impact on your stress levels. Because I’m feeling cranky, today I’m just going to ask you to harden up Buttercup. Delete all of it. But but but… Toast….  Seriously people… WTF… just delete that mail; it’s not like it’s a god damn puppy that you’re drowning in a bucket of cold spit.

I’m worried about missing something. Fear of missing out, fear of not knowing something you need to know, fear that someone else will know more than you, fear of looking stupid, fear of failure, fear of missing the point, fear of trying literally any of a dozen other methods for communicating with our peers, fear of loss. Look, I know you’re scared. I don’t care. You’ve got to stop measuring your own worth and the value of your brand based on how many times and how well you can surface a piece of corporate trivia. You’ve got to be better than that.

I use Outlook to save things. You have messages in your Inbox from the previous administration, your previous boss, your previous role. WHY. Why the hell didn’t you delete them at the time? Why are you not deleting them now? If you literally took every single email in all those 50 thousand some odd folders you’ve so neatly categorised and then deleted anything older than two weeks, your life would not materially change in any way. Maybe… MAYBE… in a week or two, you’ll need something you deleted. So what? It’s in your Deleted folder. Really. Most companies keep that stuff by default for at least a month. After a month the entire company has changed anyway so it’s just so much garbage.

Outlook helps me organise my work. Do you know much time you’ve wasted with that nonsense of putting everything into its own neat little folder or subfolder? Hours and hours and hours. First you waste time setting it up. Then you waste time every day giving yourself an artificial pump of joy juice by ‘managing it’ and THEN… You know what happens when you have that once in a blue moon need to find something? You can’t remember which folder you put it into. Was it Weekly Reports? Or Project Maga? You end up using the Search tool to find it based on a key phrase. You know what’s even quicker? Using the Search tool in the Deleted folder. You know what you never need to read? A PowerPoint from 2010.

You’re wrong Toast, I might need that report in two years. Someone might ask for it. Then why is it in your god damned INBOX! The one place where it is categorically the most useless bit of bits is in a password secured file on an unstable Exchange server only accessible to one highly fallible individual. If it’s so important put it someplace useful like a shared team folder, SharePoint site, someplace where another person could actually find and use it. You know who else could find and use it 5 years from now? You.

It’s my task list. I have tasks. They are emails. I will do the emails. The emails will be done. You have > 3000 messages sitting there. Several HUNDRED OF THEM ARE UNREAD. You are not going to do those tasks. If that Inbox is a measure of your productivity, you suck and you need to go away. Just… argh. DELETE your tasks. All of them. This is a radical purge of the garage wherein you throw away every single thing you haven’t looked at in years. AWAY. Throw it all away. All you are doing is reminding yourself each and every morning about how you are unable to keep up with your tasks. Stop it. Do yourself a favour and get rid of all of that electronically induced negative baggage.

Stop being so mean. What would you do?

I’ve said this before… I will probably say this every year or two for the rest of my life. Start over. Pretend you are starting a new job.

  1. Delete everything. EVERYTHING. Everything. All of it. All the folders and subfolders, all the unread and read. All of it. If you’re feeling insecure, I’ll let you keep anything that landed in your inbox in the past 3 days. All the rest of it? Make it go away. Delete.
  2. Create three folders: Read/Review, Waiting, and Action Required.
  3. Set aside 3 times per day to “Process Email”. Calendar it if you must. Set 1 time per day to “Purge Email”.
  4. During your Process Email time, you pull up each message, do one of the following:
    1. Read and delete.
      OR
    2. Ask “Will it take two minutes to reply or “do the thing”?” If yes, just do it. NOW. Not later, NOW. This is what Process Email time is for. Do it now
      OR
    3. File it as follows
      §  Action Required – It’ll take more than two minutes and I plan to use Outlook as a task list. This folder is that task list.
      §  Read/Review – I need to read the thing but it’ll take longer than two minutes.
      §  Waiting – This represents a reminder to me that someone else has to do a thing.
  5. During your Purge Email time:
    1. Do the Action Required tasks or admit you’re never going to and delete it. Always delete tasks you haven’t done in 2 weeks. You’re not going to. Give up.
    2. Clear out Read Review by reading it or finally admitting you will not ever read it and yes… delete it. Give up.
    3. Clear out Waiting by sending a reminder to the idiot who hasn’t done their thing to get on it. After 4 reminders, lose your shit in a public place with that person then delete it. Give up.

This all seems super negative, eh? Lots of futile admissions of inadequacy. Lots of purging, shouting, stomping your feet and deleting. This is because I am asking you to breakup with Outlook. Your Inbox is a really abusive lover who has been nagging you for decades. I am That Friend who is telling you to snap the f* out of it and get rid of that piece of trash. It’s a violent act of self-preservation. You will simply have to trust me that you’re going to be much happier in your new life.

Email is such a funny thing. People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble. But it doesn't take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that's taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move, even if you wanted to do it over a few dozen trips. But for the person who took the time to hand you their pebble, it seems outrageous that you can't handle that one tiny thing.” ~ Merlin Mann