It’s Time for a Vendetta Against Email

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The better I get at filtering and managing my email, the more convinced I am that email overload may be an intractable problem.

All the email tips, strategies and systems I have seen — my own included— rest on two fundamental assumptions:

  1. If you’re working smartly and efficiently, you can appropriately process (read, file and/or respond to) every email you receive.
  2. It is unacceptable to ignore (i.e. not respond to) an email that implicitly or explicitly asks for a response.

I’m not sure exactly when or how it started, but assumption #1 has started to break down. If you’re getting 10 emails a day, that seems like a manageable volume. What if you’re getting 100? Many of us can, and do, stay on top of that many emails. What if it’s 500? What if it’s 5,000?

At some point, the number gets Too Big For One Person (TB41P), and when that happens, you’ve got to revisit assumption #2.

Once we agree that there is some number at which we’ve got to question the assumption of mandatory email response, we are (to borrow from Shaw) just arguing over the number. Nor can we expect that number to be one-size-fits-all: a celebrity or CEO who can bankroll a team of assistants might sail through the 5,000/day figure, while a front-line social worker with a full case load might struggle to find time to handle a few dozen emails in between client visits.

What matters is acknowledging that there is some threshold between an inbox that’s acceptable and one that’s TB41P. And for many of us, that threshold is drawing nearer, or already a distant smirch in the rear-view mirror.

As Stever Robbins points in a brilliant 2004 article, email has shifted the costs of communication from the sender (who formerly had to go to the trouble of finding pen, paper and a stamp) to the recipient (who now has to spend time parsing all manner of ill-thought-out, hard-to-comprehend messages).

The expectation that every message gets an answer dates from that previous era: the era when a correspondent had gone to some trouble, enough to warrant a response. By carrying it forward, into an era when it’s the recipient and not the sender who bears the burden, we’ve condemned ourselves to a life of email servitude. We carry our Blackberries and our iPhones so that we swat down messages as quickly as possible, before they have time to accumulate in our inboxes. We routinely answer email in the hours after dinner (remember the old idea of “personal time”?) because there’s no way to get through it during the business day. We set up vacation messages to apologize for 24 hour email absences, and then take on the burden of plowing through the backlog up on our return.

But with email volume rising to meet, and then exceed capacity (it’s a good rule of life: volume always rises to exceed capacity), it’s time for us to revisit the social convention that all answerable email deserves an answer.

Let me now suggest, rather indelicately, an alternative: Declare a vendetta on mandatory email. Put the cost of communication back on the sender.

What if we decided only to respond to the emails that actually feel important, valuable or exciting enough to warrant a response? What if we left inquiries unanswered, information unacknowledged, requests unfulfilled? What if we chose to respond only to the email we actually want to respond to? It’s possible. We can can shift the cost of making a message response-worthy back to the message sender.

Here’s how we might precipitate the shift: First, we announce, one brave soul at a time, that we’re no longer going to review or reply to every email. Ironically, the fastest path to ending the universal reply is by introducing the universal auto-reply: an email broadcast that politely says something like:

Due to the volume of email I receive, I no longer personally review every message. If you are interested in learning more about why I have decided to set limits on my email time, you can read this [link to this blog post or one you draft yourself]. If you do not receive a further reply within 72 hours, please assume that I have had to focus on other professional or personal priorities at this time. Thank you in advance for your understanding.

In a business culture that imposes the oppressive rule of mandatory replies, that kind ostentatious declaration may seem sacrilegious, rude or professionally suicidal. On the other hand, are we not killing ourselves now, daily, to get through our email? We are already sacrificing our personal lives, our professional goals, and even our health (for who hasn’t sacrificed sleep to get through that inbox backlog?) all because Thou Shalt Reply To Every Email.

Guess what? That’s not actually a commandment. So let’s stop acting like it is, and kill this outmoded social convention.

Starting now. I’m going to set up my own auto-reply based on the message above — but in my own voice, and tweaked so that it doesn’t auto-reply to people who are replying to me. I’ll make this the default reply to all my incoming messages, linking to this post as my explanation of why I’m attempting to liberate myself from email. Let me know how your personal vendetta develops. What message did you craft? How did people respond? Are you more productive for it? Let’s kill the commandment of mandatory email reply, for good.

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