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Inbox Zero

Nerd Merit Badge for Inbox ZeroIf you’d asked me last week, I would probably have said email was a solved problem. We, as a society, have a set of norms around email, and we all have ways of managing it, and it’s fiiiine. Maybe I’d have rolled my eyes at a post like this one. (I hope not, but I entertain the possibility.) I honestly hadn’t considered the fact that, if there’s a Nerd Merit Badge based on the concept of “Inbox Zero,” and it’s understood that not everybody necessarily reads any given message they receive, there must therefore be some Serious Problems around email. I’ve had cause to think very hard about email, as a communication medium, this week, and I’m left wondering: have I discovered something groundbreaking, if I don’t have Serious Email Problems? do most people have strategies for dealing with email, or are most people regularly failing to read important messages–which am I, the majority or the minority, here? should we, perhaps, talk more about this, as a society, a profession, or a workplace?


Earlier this month I sent out an email to my entire library. This is not something I do lightly, because we are all busy people and shouldn’t have our time wasted by frivolous email. (Also, the number of typos in any message I send seems to be proportional to the number of people receiving it. I hate mailing lists.) It was a message of some importance, detailing the changes being made to our website over the semester break and providing a link to my development page. I described the reasons for the changes. I asked for feedback. I reposted the email into our intranet, so people could refer to it later, or view it during slow moments on the desk, or whatever.

And I got no reply.

I’m not quite naive enough to have believed that that meant universal adulation and approval of the site. I realize that, to put it plainly, most people suck at reading email. But I suppose I expected that the people who cared about the website would at least glance at the proposed page. They might not read my words, but they’d click on the link and look at the site, because it matters to their daily lives. (I think you see where I am going.)

So… yesterday… I was in this meeting, talking about a further iteration beyond what I had sent out in the email. This one’s a big enough deal to meet about, where the other really wasn’t. I did my due diligence and provided a “refresher” summary of the changes I’d already sent out, figuring someone in the room might have skipped my message. But then several people seemed genuinely upset that this was “the first time [they were] seeing” the previous version. When I pointed out that I had sent the email and posted to the intranet, some people seemed confused, and some seemed… well, they kind of seemed angry that I thought an email was a reasonable way to communicate anything at all, ever. (One or two people had actually read it–no joke, it was a tiny minority–so it’s not like the email stalled somewhere or got marked as spam.)

How to deal with digital communication?

I found out, over the course of discussions during and after the meeting, that there are people who leave large swaths of their email unread. I’m not saying they look at a message, decide it’s too much work, and click “mark unread.” (I do that sometimes! It’s a bad habit.) I’m saying they look at the subject line and think “Later.” For sometimes hundreds of messages. I can’t imagine working that way, but these folks have been at their jobs longer than I’ve been at mine–some of them are full professors, or on their way to it–so obviously, they are productive and successful without actually receiving all of the communication that’s intended for them. The system “works” for them (except in cases like the one I described above, where there are hurt feelings–but those situations apparently don’t happen often enough to these folks to result in a workflow change).

At this point, I’m going to describe my approach to the email monster. It’s not perfect, but I am going to go out on a limb and claim that I at least see every message I need to see, and I address the vast majority of what I need to address. I won’t say I don’t spazz out and miss things in some long messages, or that I never mark a message “read” before dealing with it (stupid iPhone), now and then. But I think it’s a more effective system than leaving messages entirely unread. My hope in sharing this is that people will comment and share their approaches, and we can all learn from each other and keep refining our workflows. I’m not sure there’s “a right way” to handle digital communication, honestly, so there’s probably room for refinement, for all of us.

My Email Workflow

Step One: Don’t use “work email” for everything. Or for anything more than you have to, really. Exchange/Outlook/Entourage is an OK email system. It has some definite up sides, but I’ve never really liked its filtering options (local folders? really?) or its inability to handle threading correctly or its search functions; also, we have outages, now and then, on our campus. Love it or hate it, Google fills in some of the gaps Exchange leaves open. So all of my professional listservs go to my “real” email address, which is managed by Google (they don’t manage this whole domain, just the mail). Similarly, I try to do all of my work with various professional and community organizations through that personal account, rather than my work account. This gives me a definite advantage, I think, because…

Step Two: Filter like there’s no tomorrow. Library listserv traffic skips my inbox and goes into a folder/label that I can access from anywhere, not just my desktop. Vendor email either gets unsubscribed-from or gets filtered into an appropriate folder. I have over 100 mail filter rules maintaining the sanctity of my inbox and, with it, my sanity. … But only on my personal account. My work account gets so much less traffic that I can manage all of it in one place–though I am tempted to move even the internal-to-work mailing lists over to my personal account, to control them better. Perhaps sorting in Entourage would be OK for some people, but I really am unwilling to make folders on my desktop–that way lies madness and inefficiency. (I’ve tried it. It was awful. Outlook couldn’t search all the folders at once, and, inevitably, the message I needed from home was in a local folder at work.)

Step Three: If it gets to an inbox, read it immediately. I don’t mean that one should drop everything every time an email comes in, but do set aside time to deal with email, and then just freaking deal with it. If it’s something you can do/respond to/pass off to someone else/[insert verb] immediately, do so, and if it requires more time/thought/whatever, put it somewhere other than your inbox. Actually, that should be its own step.

Step Four: Have some good way of tracking tasks. Good, as in, NOT YOUR INBOX. Digitally inclined? I love TeuxDeux. Some people swear by Evernote. Some people just use their calendars for that–I’ve gone down that road, and it actually wasn’t too bad. We also have a help desk/ticketing system, which lets me add longer-term tasks that I don’t want to forget about. Or, you say you’re more of an analog sort? Then write a freaking list–maybe even on a whiteboard. Better, make a Covey/Pausch-style list, with quadrants and stuff. … Now, I’ll admit, I do sometimes mark a thing unread, if I plan to do it the following day. This takes discipline, which… uh, varies, by time, for me. So I don’t recommend it. I recommend sticking to a good task tracker, instead.

Step Five: Have a sense of priority, in reading your folders/labels. The inbox and anything for which I’m on an executive board: first priority. Other labels get dealt with as I have time, in a fairly loose hierarchy, with “Library Listservs” showing up pretty low, due to the volume. I save that one for those inconvenient chunks of times: a half hour between meetings, a project done near but not quite at the end of the day, or slow nights at the reference desk. And it works really well for me. … And the best thing? On really bad weeks, I can just throw up my hands and click “select all,” then “mark read” on any given label, if I need to. No problem. I’m not missing anything aimed directly at me, because that goes to my inbox (and if I moved my work mailing lists over to my domain, they’d get their own labels, so that I never marked-everything-read on those).

And that’s it, I think. That’s my whole system. It used to throw me off when people sent non-work email to my work account, but now I just forward it and reply from my main account. The problem usually corrects itself over time.

Where do we go from here?

I’m going to have to come up with strategies for dealing with work communication. Something other than holding a meeting (in addition to the Web Team meeting) for every change–because that is a terrible use of everyone’s time. (The feedback I get from those meetings isn’t well thought out, which makes sense: to know how a website works for you, you need to use it, not watch someone pointing at it. To give good feedback, you need a little bit of time to think.) Maybe I will keep doing what I’m doing, and I will hold my colleagues to the expectation that, if they want to know what’s going on, they look at either email or the intranet–I am good about putting things both places, when they’re important. Maybe I will get more insistent that Web Team members report back to their individual departments–and ask department heads to make time for that in their agendas. … I kind of like both strategies. But if you’ve made it this far, you probably have opinions on this: what do you do? Or, if you’re usually on the other side of this communication barrier, what would you want to happen?

Published incommunicationlibrarianshiptechnology


  1. Seth

    I have been trying to use an inbox-zero approach for some time now. There are periods when I am better at it than others but it is generally pretty close. I follow the same principles you do and it seems to work out.

    For my TODO lists I have really enjoyed using Hiveminder.

  2. Anita

    The problem I run into carrying through with phone calls…I’m so comfortable with and efficient with email that I never rely on *remembering* to do something, I always get it done immediately or have a visual reminder. Making a phone call seems like an incredibly onerous task and I often put them off until I completely forget.

    Also, I am of the strong opinion that if you ignore an email or other communication, it’s your own fault that you didn’t receive the information and shouldn’t have accommodations made for that. Unfortunately I don’t really have the authority to enforce that, but it drives me crazy.

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