Okay, You’ve Declared E-Mail Bankruptcy. Now What?

There’s lots going on in Xconomy-land, so this week’s column will be shorter than usual. Which is probably fine with you, since everyone seems pressed for time these days.

Microsoft is notorious for its lame ad campaigns, but lately the software giant has been putting its finger on the overcommitment problem, through an amusing series of ads for Hotmail under the theme “The New Busy.” As Microsoft implies in its ads, everyone in a knowledge-worker role spends more time than they would like managing stuff like incoming e-mail. I can’t quite see how Hotmail solves that problem—but there’s no doubt it’s a real one.

So, on this subject of being too busy, I want to come back to a 2009 column I wrote about the “e-mail bankruptcy” method for getting over your inbox management blues. I’ve noticed more and more people turning to this technique. Just this week, for example, David Cancel, CEO of Amesbury, MA-based Web analytics startup Performable, tweeted that he was getting ready to do the deed.

Declaring e-mail bankruptcy is simple, and not nearly as painful as its financial namesake. All you have to do is admit to yourself that you’re never going to have time to deal with the huge backlog of unanswered e-mails clogging your inbox, and archive or delete them en masse. (It’s polite to let your frequent correspondents know that you’re doing this, so they can re-message you if they were waiting to hear back about some urgent inquiry.)

But clearing out your inbox is only the first half of the solution to chronic e-mail overload, and it’s the second half that I want to touch on today. The trick is to prevent another backlog from building up by completely emptying your inbox at least once every work day.

Emptying your inbox the first time is easy. But keeping it empty requires vigilance and dedication, as I learned after I deleted some 15,000 unanswered e-mails back in January 2009. I kept to my zero-inbox routine for a couple of months, but then I fell off the wagon, allowing one day’s accumulation of e-mail to build up to a week’s and then a month’s. Pretty soon my unread message count was back up to 3,000. That mountain of e-mail is pretty easy to build up in a hurry if you get 150 to 250 e-mails a day, as I do.

I knew I’d have to go through another bankruptcy eventually, but first I wanted to find some techniques that might help me adhere to the zero-inbox habit. My main challenge—and the big reason I’d given up on my routine—was that it was just taking too long. I’d put in a regular 8, 10, or 12-hour work day, and then I’d have to spend another hour or two getting through all of the stuff in my inbox. Faced with a choice between keeping my inbox empty and having a semblance of a life outside work, I had chosen life.

But after I was seated as a juror on a medical malpractice trial back in March and wound up spending three weeks away from the office, my e-mail log jam grew so tangled that I had to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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