This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Reclaim Your Inbox

In Brief: In this article, co-authors Lindsay Sarin and Erin Dorney experiment with managing email (testing three existing systems), explore the idea of managing communication expectations, and consider the implications these strategies could have on our library communities.

wendy macnaughton email graphic

Photo by Wendy Macnaughton.

By  and 

Email Everywhere

Email celebrated its 41st birthday this year. Originally a technology reserved for the savviest of computer geeks, email first moved into the academic and corporate worlds, then into our homes, and today into our pockets. A 2011 report from the Pew Internet and American Life Projectfound that 92% of adults in the United States use email, with 49% of those surveyed checking their email on a daily basis (p. 2). The Radicati Group, a market research firm focused on the computer and telecommunications industry, reports that in 2011, “…the typical corporate email user sends and receives about 105 email messages per day” (p. 3).

Librarians have not been immune to this superabundance of messages. Internally, we leverage email as an asynchronous tool to communicate with coworkers and professional colleagues. Externally, we use email to reach out and respond to our communities. Add in personal email to family and friends, and the amount of time spent communicating via email can be overwhelming. For this reason, some individuals and organizations have begun building guidelines for managing their email (discussed in more detail below).

However, email itself—the software that runs on our computers and connects them—may not be the root of the communication problem. Messages and inboxes are likely here to stay; they are even integrated into social media tools like Facebook. Yes, there is a lot of email and sometimes we feel overwhelmed with information, spam, and requests. But perhaps the problem is related to time management, task prioritization, and impulse control. Maybe instead of trying to manage the number of emails in our inbox, we should instead try to manage expectations on both the individual and organizational level.

In this Lead Pipe article, co-authors Lindsay Sarin (MLS Program Coordinator at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies) and Erin Dorney (Outreach Librarian at Millersville University) experiment with managing email (testing three existing systems), explore the idea of managing communication expectations, and consider the implications these strategies could have on our library communities.

Productivity and Stress

In his 2009 Harvard Business Review article, author Paul Kemp cites research revealing that it took people about 25 minutes to return to work after email “interruptions” (p. 83). That’s a long time to recover, especially when studies by human computer interaction researchers indicated that many feel that email is a task that they need to do continually throughout the day (Czerwinski, M., Horvitz, E., & Wilhite, S, 2004; Markus, 1994; as cited in Hair, M., Renaud, K.V., & Ramsey, J., 2006, p.2792,). Hair, et. al (2006), also state that certain personality types associated the pressures of email with a “lack of control over their work environment,” which increased the level of stress they felt at work (p.2800). A study by Barley, S., Meyerson, D.E., & Grodal, S. (2011), faculty at Stanford and Boston Universities, displayed a similar pattern; 45% of participants “associated the volume of email they received with loss of control” (p. 898). In particular, participants were afraid to fall behind in their work or miss out on information. The proliferation of smart phones only magnifies this issue, as it becomes easier to sync work email to a device carried almost constantly (even into the bathroom).

Feeling the need to check email constantly stresses us out. Fulfilling that need by actually checking the email constantly then causes even more stress. The Barley, S., Meyerson, D.E., & Grodal, S. (2011) study demonstrated that although email interruptions during the work day can make us less productive, we continue to respond in order to avoid the resulting guilt when we cannot answer or process emails quickly (p. 895). The same study revealed “…e-mail’s material properties entwined with social norms and interpretations in a way that led informants to single out e-mail as a cultural symbol of the overload they experience in their lives” (p.887). Additional findings suggest email “diverts attention from tasks at hand” and “causes people to shift gears and add new tasks to their current stack” (p. 888). Email both interrupts the ability to complete tasks and adds to workload stress.

Email Management Techniques

Between the interruptions and the stress, it’s no wonder that some have turned to the creation of email guidelines in order to work more efficiently and seek a better work/life balance. The most popular of these guidelines is The Email Charter, sparked by a 2011 blog post by TED Curator, Chris Anderson, and TED Scribe, Jane Wulf. According to the Charter:

“An email inbox has been aptly described as the to-do list that anyone in the world can add an item to. If you’re not careful, it can gobble up most of your working week. Then you’ve become a reactive robot responding to other people’s requests, instead of a proactive agent addressing your own true priorities. This is not good.”

The Email Charter offers 10 rules to reverse the email spiral, but it isn’t the only email management technique in common use. After reviewing The Email Charter and some other guidelines ((Examples include The Better Email Manifesto from Michael Townsend Williams at Stillworks; Email Manifesto from marketing agency Boston Interactive; Email Manifesto by Maria Andersen at Muskegon Community College; Email Etiquette for the Super-Busy by Jocelyn K. Glei at 99U.)), we decided to select three techniques and experiment with them, as part of our investigation into the role of email in our lives. We tested four.sentenc.es, Inbox Zero, and The Email Game. Although there are some email management strategies that require users to purchase particular software, all of the methods tested for this article were free of monetary cost.

Before moving on, we thought it only fair to share some background in order to provide context for the trials. Both of us began using email in the mid-nineties and currently manage between two and four email accounts. We have iPhones synced with email, however, we do not use the automatic push feature. Instead, we opt to practice self control and fetch email at times that are convenient to us.

Trial One: four.sentenc.es

Created in 2007 by Mike Davidson ((Mike Davidson founded and was the Creative Director and CEO of Newsvine, which was acquired by NBCNews, invented sIFR, and currently works as the Vice President for Design at Twitter.)), the premise of four.sentenc.es is that emails should be treated like text messages—written with the fewest number of characters possible. Instead of counting letters or words, this method encourages users to limit their messages to a specified number of sentences. We elected to write and respond to emails using four sentences, but users can also select two.sentenc.es, three.sentenc.es, or five.sentenc.es based on how extreme they’d like to be. Users are encouraged to include a note about the method (with a link) in the signature line of every email.

Four.sentence.es proved to be a challenging lesson in creating focused messages, forcing us to look closely at the assumptions we made about email content and length. This method put the onus on the email sender (us) to be mindful and identify the most critical pieces of information for inclusion. The tactic felt similar to crafting a tweet in less than 140 characters. We quickly found that attempting to cram a lot of information into a restricted space had a negative impact on grammar. We were also concerned with how a four-sentence email might be perceived by the recipients; one author felt like it was rude to respond to long emails in so few words. However, if anyone felt like we were being brusk during the course of our week-long experiment with four.sentenc.es, they didn’t say anything to us about it. This made us consider email etiquette and how communication seemed linked to the expectations (perceived or realistic) of others. In some circumstances, we felt justified (even vindicated) in replying to long messages with a short but thoughtful message. In others, such as email to family members or significant others, sending a short message felt a little bit awkward.

Inbox Zero

Trial Two: Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero was the brainchild of Merlin Mann ((Merlin Mann is the creator of 43folders.com, co-host of three popular podcasts (You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, Roderick on the Line), and a free-lance writer.)) and became highly popularized after a viral video of Mann’s presentation at a 2007 Google Tech Talk. The underlying philosophy of this method is that users should stop using their inboxes as to-do lists and keep them empty, thereby reducing stress and increasing productivity. Mann offers strategies to do so, including productivity sprints, filters, and a simple list of actions. Each time users check their email, they process every single message using one of these five actions: delete or archive; delegate; respond; defer; do.

Above all else, we found that this email management method required individuals to be ruthless in adhering to the rules. While it felt freeing to look at an empty inbox, this approach was heavily dependent on impulse control—carving out specific times to check for new mail throughout the day and processing every single email using one of the five actions. However, we did find that Inbox Zero allowed us to manage time efficiently and increase productivity. One of the authors set aside time to work on deferred items and didn’t feel distracted by the latest “fire” that came down the pike. She found that it was also much easier to go through and delete junk in one pass rather than when it arrived every few minutes (vendor emails, spam, university-wide notifications).

The Email Game

Trial Three: The Email Game

The Email Game applies game mechanics to quickly and purposefully engage users with their email. As each message is viewed, users see a countdown box with the number of seconds remaining for them to reply, skip, archive, or delete the message. Although these actions are similar to those from Inbox Zero, the game interface makes it seem less like work and more like fun. Users also have the option to “boomerang” the message, archiving it for now and bringing it back to their inbox when they choose (time ranges from 1 hour to 2 weeks). When all messages have been addressed, users receive points and badges that accumulate on a personal dashboard.

We had a lot of fun testing this email management technique. It seemed to work best when a lot of emails had collected. Because more emails resulted in more points, we exercised more impulse control in order to allow the number of emails build. One drawback was that The Email Game only works with Gmail, while the other two methods we tested could be used with Microsoft Outlook or any other email client. Additionally, using The Email Game interface requires users to share your Google password and could potentially compromise email privacy. This was the only tactic that garnered feedback from those who received emails during our testing. A librarian colleague noted Erin’s tagline automatically placed at the bottom of her message and replied:

“I saw the Email Game link at the bottom of your message and checked it out. Wow! This is EXACTLY what I need! Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by my email inbox that I just shut down and ignore it, and of course that only makes things worse! I also have a habit of starting to write an email, and then thinking of something else and opening another tab, and then before I know it, I’ve spent 25 minutes on Wikipedia or YouTube and have only two sentences of a reply written. I’m glad I’m not the only one that happens to! I’m going to try this out for a bit and see if I like it and if it helps me get things done. Good recommendation!”

The Email Game is the method that we have most consistently used since our testing phase. We’re especially inclined to use this technique when we’re feeling stressed by the number of emails in our inboxes. However, we still wish we could use it on our phones and with email services other than Gmail.

Lessons Learned

Overall, our trials revealed three deceptively simple lessons:

  1. Depending on the situation, use multiple methods together. We had the best experience when combining our favorite aspects of all three techniques.
  2. Management techniques are sometimes as taxing as normal email stress. We had to remember and follow self-imposed rules that didn’t fit into our normal routine; creating a new routine is stressful.
  3. Even if you control your actions, you can’t control others. For example, with each of these methods we worked hard to respond concisely and in a timely manner, but those we communicated with were not beholden to those restrictions and did not adhere to the same expectations.

Managing Communication Expectations

In libraries, we are used to doing more with less. We want to help and educate our users, which often requires us to respond quickly (and with a smile). However, in order to protect our limited time and avoid being sucked into a quagmire of anxiety about email, we need to consider managing our inboxes and our expectations.

As a profession, we have moved some of our collaborative work away from email. The creation of ALA Connect allows the library community to collaborate through threaded discussion boards, groups, and online documents. Grassroot collectives like the ALA Think Tank and Library Society of the World are using existing social media (Facebook and FriendFeed) as an alternative to to traditional mailing lists. There are low-cost or free alternatives like Google Groups, Basecamp, Smartsheet, and Action Method, as well as internally-focused wikis and blogs. Still, many internal and external collaborations take place through email, including committee work, brainstorming, and decision-making within our institutions.

When expectations are not clearly defined, individuals may experience anxiety about communication and feel pressure to remain connected and responsive at all times. This anxiety is not imagined—the Stanford and Boston study also found that respondents who answer emails more quickly (within hours) are often viewed as more conscientious or caring, where as those who respond more slowly (generally beyond one day) were viewed as less so (p. 899).

Consider the following scenarios:

  • External expectations: You’re an academic librarian. A colleague responds to email from students and faculty at all hours because messages are pushed to her phone. A faculty member emails you on Friday after 5 PM and you respond by 11 AM Monday. In the meantime, the faculty member has emailed you two more times on Saturday. When you do reply, the faculty member says that he emailed your colleague on Saturday and received a response within 15 minutes.
  • Internal expectations: You are trying to be more productive by checking email only two times during the workday. When you check for new mail at 4 PM you see that there has been a 20-message conversation thread between librarians arranging to cover gaps in the reference desk scheduled for next week. By the time you read through the messages, all of the hours have been covered and someone even replied to all asking why you haven’t chimed in.

Both of the situations described above could be remedied with clearer communication about communication. Librarians want to be helpful, but we cannot be tied to our desks or devices every second of the day. As we experimented with managing email, the most profound lesson we learned was that we must manage our own expectations about how we (and others) choose to respond or not respond, and how quickly.

This can start with an open conversation. If you are feeling stressed about the amount of email you receive, tell your colleagues what management methods you’re trying so they won’t become frustrated when you respond to each request in less than four sentences or when you don’t respond on Saturdays. If you’re working on a committee, discuss communication from the very beginning, so if someone is catching up on all of their committee work on Sundays, you won’t be upset when they don’t reply to your email during the workweek. If there is a particular person who doesn’t follow what you view as good email etiquette (e.g. cc’s you on things that don’t involve you or takes weeks to respond to direct requests), then it’s time to have a frank conversation. Some of us get anxious when faced with a potential conflict, but what’s worse: feeling stressed-out, guilty, and unproductive, or having a conversation in which you set up some ground rules? We’re voting for conversation, with a smile of course.

We’re interested in hearing about your experiences with email and communication expectations. Do you feel overwhelmed by the amount of email you receive? Have you tried any of the methods described above, or other techniques to manage your email? What sort of expectations are at play at your place of work regarding communication (email or otherwise)?

Many thanks to our external peer reviewer Tracy Gold and Lead Pipers Brett Bonfield, Ellie Collier, and Emily Ford for their feedback on this article.

References and Further Readings

Barley, S. R., Meyerson, D. E., & Grodal, S. (2011). E-mail as a source and symbol of stress. Organization Science, 22(4), 887-906. Retrieved from http://www.stanford.edu/group/WTO/cgi-bin/uploads/2011%20Email%20as%20a%20Source%20and%20Symbol%20of%20Stress.pdf

C. Anderson. (2011, June 9). Help create an email charter! Retrieved from http://tedchris.posterous.com/help-create-an-email-charter

Chui, M., Manyika, J., Bughin, J., Dobbs, R., Roxburgh, C., Sarrazin, H., Sands, G., & Westergren, M. (2012, July). The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies, McKinsey Global Institute. Retrieved from http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/mgi/research/technology_and_innovation/the_social_economy

Duboff, J. (2012, March 8). iPhone addiction is for real, says Stanford study. The New York Magazine. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2010/03/iphone_addiction_is_for_real_s.html

Gonzalez, V.M., & Mark, G. (2004). Constant, constant, multi-tasking craziness”: Managing multiple working spheres. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 113-120. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=985707

Hair, M., Renaud, K.V., & Ramsay, J. (2007). The influence of self-esteem and locus of control on perceived email-related stress. Computers in Human Behavior, 23, 2791-2803. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563206000756

Hemp, P. (2009). Death by information overload. Harvard Business Review, 87(9), 82-89. Retrieved from http://hbr.org/2009/09/death-by-information-overload/ar/1

M. Davidson. (2007, July 17). A low-fi solution to e-mail overload: Sentenc.es. Retrieved from http://www.mikeindustries.com/blog/archive/2007/07/fight-email-overload-with-sentences

O’Dell, J. (2011). The history of email [inforgraphic]. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2011/06/18/the-history-of-email-infographic/

Pollet, T. V., Roberts, S. B., & Dunbar, R. M. (2011). Use of Social Network Sites and Instant Messaging Does Not Lead to Increased Offline Social Network Size, or to Emotionally Closer Relationships with Offline Network Members. Cyberpsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, 14(4), 253-258. doi:10.1089/cyber.2010.0161

Psyblog. (2010). Email’s dark side: 10 psychology studies. Psyblog.com. Retrieved from http://www.spring.org.uk/2010/09/emails-dark-side-10-psychology-studies.php

Purcell, K. (2011, August 9). Search and email still top the list of most popular online activities. Pew Internet. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Search-and-email.aspx

Radicati, S., & Hoang, Q. (2011, May). Email statistics report, 2011-2015, The Radicati Group. Retrieved from http://www.radicati.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Email-Statistics-Report-2011-2015-Executive-Summary.pdf

Rosman, K. (2006, Dec. 8). BlackBerry orphans. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB116553463083344032-SzuhOlzamjgoRWAGOqtyX7h8ldM_20071208.html

Spencer, N. (2012, August 8). How to destroy your productivity at work. Visual News. Retrieved from http://www.visualnews.com/2012/08/04/how-to-destroy-your-productivity-at-work/

Whittaker, S., Matthews, T., Cerruti, J., Badenes, H., & Tang, J. (2011). Am I wasting my time organizing email? A study of email refinding. Proceedings of the 2011 Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’11), 3449-3458. Retrieved from http://people.ucsc.edu/~swhittak/papers/chi2011_refinding_email_camera_ready.pdf

10 Responses

  1. Gretel Stock-Kupperman

    Great article! I live by the GTD (Getting Things Done) philosophy of “Do, Delegate or Defer.” Along with striving for inbox zero, I either Do (complete the task if it takes less than two minutes), Delegate (send it to someone who needs to handle it) or Defer. Defer in my case means attaching a time-based outlook task on the email so that it hits my electronic to-do list.

    This strategy is critical for me in handling the stress of every day email. Oh, and I auto-forward listserv emails to a separate folder, which I can read at my leisure without having to see it in my inbox. VERY helpful.

  2. “Clearer communication about communication” is a key point and one that (ironically enough) came up during a customer service training class I was helping to teach this morning for library staff at MPOW. There was general consent that some sort of “email training” would be beneficial for everyone: not just tips and tricks, but outlining expectations.

    I once heard (from a Merlin Man podcast) that every email is like a tiny pebble and those pebbles pile up over the course of a day. Anytime we email a colleague, we have to be mindful of the fact that that person may have a pile full of pebbles on their desk so our request, however small, is only one of what may be a mountain of rocks.

    The biggest problem with email, IMO, is that no matter how good my filters are, I can’t control the inflow in the same way that I can step away from my desk or refuse to pick up the phone if I’m trying to focus on a task. The pile of tiny pebbles will reach me eventually.

    I’ll admit that I once saw Google Wave (may it rest in peace) as a savior from email and I’m still sad that it didn’t succeed in changing the way we communicate in organizations (comment-like email formatting; inline doc collaboration; built-in IM). Chat and social media is beginning to help us rethink communication, but slowly (especially so in libraries). Like you said, it’s here to stay… much to my dismay.

    Until something better comes along, you’re more likely to see me calling a colleague than sending an email, if I can avoid it. :)

    1. Lindsay Sarin

      Hear hear John! You make an important point that it’s important that we set your own rules and try to control the flow of emails that you send (lead by example). I’ve become a bit of the weirdo around the office, because I actually go to someone’s office to speak with them instead of sending an email.

      Hopefully, you’ll get a chance to set-up some sort of email training formal or otherwise (and if you do please let us know how that goes).

      1. Interesting. I do go to someone’s office if email has proven to be a poor way to communicate with them, usually either due to tone issues or complexity of the topic. But overall I find someone stopping into my office to be much more disruptive to my workflow than an email.

        And for me, it’s much harder to retain information from a face to face interaction as opposed to being able to go back to something in writing.

        We actually have a standard line in my family if we’re talking on the phone and ask the other person to do something, “Send me an email or I won’t remember.”

  3. I recently started using a method recommended to me by a friend called The Secret Weapon. It’s a combo between zero inbox and using Evernote as a tool for task management. I love it.
    instead of using a convoluted system of colored stars (blue for collection development, yellow for deal with now, green for cool articles to read sent to me by colleagues) and Gmails Priority Inbox, The Secret Weapon works. Also, it’s on every darn device I have!

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  5. I was fascinated reading through drafts of this piece about the expectations in the authors’ work environments. I’ve worked in 4 different libraries: 1 university, 2 community colleges, and 1 small liberal arts college, and none of them have had those types of expectations or behaviors for immediate responses to emails. I was in fact chastised for responding too quickly at one of them. Immediate replies implied you didn’t have enough work to do or hadn’t been thoughtful enough in your reply – expectations were more like within a few days there. I wonder what factors play into creating that type of environment.

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