How to stand up to your bullying inbox

3rd February, 2022

Are you being bullied by your inbox? That was the question posed recently on the productivity podcast Change Your Game with GTD [Getting Things Done]. It hit a nerve, as on that particular day my email inbox had me in a corner, turning out my pockets for lunch money.

We do not often refer to the email inbox as a bully, but the metaphor is apt. Some people are unlucky enough to have an inbox full of abuse, but even those of us who do not must watch it warily, ever alert for some fresh demand. The inbox commands our attention because its insistent requests can be so unpredictable. The consequences of non-compliance are unknown and unsettling, and there are always new demands on their way, leaving you feeling permanently on the back foot.

This year I have resolved to no longer be bullied by my inbox. It is time to step forward and fight back. But how? My plan has two components: attack and defence. By defence, I mean keeping the inbox itself under control. By attack, I mean having something better to do than keep checking it.

Defence is fundamental, but difficult. By design, email is an open standard. Every day, people send me emails from all over the world. Some are complimentary, some abusive, many are marketing pitches and a surprisingly large number are requests for me to devote a few unpaid hours acting as a consultant, editor or research assistant for a total stranger. Some of this stuff can be blocked — on irrelevant marketing I operate a “one strike and you’re out” policy — but much of it I couldn’t block and wouldn’t necessarily want to.

The real difficulty, however, is that mixed in with all this are important and often urgent requests from my boss, my colleagues or my wife. If the people who matter to you are using email to get your attention, anyone else who wants your attention can saunter in there too. This can feel hopeless. You can’t ignore your boss or your spouse, so you can’t ignore your inbox. That would be like trying to hide from unwelcome visitors to your house by turning off the lights and not answering the door, then realising that you’ve booked a dozen deliveries.

Nor do the obvious tricks and hacks work terribly well. Switch off notifications? Sure, good idea. But if the inbox is central to your working life, that’s like taking the batteries out of your doorbell but going to check every 90 seconds to see if someone’s there.

The ideal strategy, if you can manage it, is to make sure your boss, your colleagues and your spouse don’t use the same inbox as random cold callers. This probably works fine for the Pope and the president, but I’ve never found that it works for me.

Cal Newport, author of A World Without Email, proposes setting up alternative workflows, such as regular “office hours” rather than coordinating meetings through endless rounds of email, or a process where project documents are uploaded to a shared drive by a given time each week. It is more like an assembly line for knowledge work than endless improvisation through the inbox. If you can manage this, you can ignore your inbox for most of the working day. But I have never found my work life predictable enough to make this seem feasible.

The alternative is what one might call the “scupper” approach. Scuppers are holes in the sides of boats or other structures that tend to get soaked. The scupper lets water in, of course, but it also lets water out again. This works better for me: the endless flow into the inbox is manageable if there is a sufficiently rapid flow out again.

I delete most emails immediately after scanning them if they don’t require any action. If a polite “Thanks!” is required, I tend to schedule it to be delivered the next day. Instant replies risk provoking a back-and-forth conversation. Nobody wants that.

The trick here is to make sure that getting emails out of the inbox is an effortless process. I have three subsidiary folders: one for things to do, one for things I’m waiting for someone else to do and a dumping ground for things I might want to read later (but which generally I don’t). I can mostly clear incoming mail in the blink of an eye. The tidal wave of email washes in and washes out again; what remains is neatly bottled into a few specific tasks.

That, then, is how I defend myself against bullying from the email inbox. But I have come to realise that attack is the best form of defence. Attacking means having a clear plan for what I intend to do — with the week, with the day, with the next half-hour. When I know what I am trying to achieve, I tend to check email less often. I am also less likely to abandon that goal in favour of someone else’s agenda popping up in the inbox.

Bullies tend to shy away from those who exude confidence, and this is true for email too. When I am anxious, the urge to self-distract with email is powerful. When I lack a clear plan, noodling around in the inbox becomes the substitute. But if I’m on a mission, I check email far less often.

Have I persuaded you? I’ve almost persuaded myself. Or perhaps I am just whistling in the dark. Let us see whether I can stand up to the bully in 2022.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 6 January 2022.

The paperback of The Data Detective is out on 1 February in the US and Canada. Title elsewhere: How To Make The World Add Up.

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