Coping with Email Overload: Which “In-Boxer” type are you?

Inspired by this NZ Herald article (and it’s related comments) as well as a Tweet from @xeroette, I decided to write up my story on how I’ve (sort of) coped with email overload for the past 15 years.

The author of the quoted article wrote:

“How much business is lost, goodwill diminished through non-response? It’s ghastly how many emails I send to individuals that go unanswered”.

I think she’s right.

However the dull reality for most information workers – on any level within the organizational chain – is that they’re suffering with email overload so badly, that they simply don’t know how to get out of it. In fact, publicly “declaring email bankruptcy” has become so popular and widely accepted, that it’s almost a phenomenon of our time. It even has it’s own Wikipedia entry!

Now let’s forget email for a minute. If you’re in marketing, sales or support, and with a new generation entering the workforce, you undoubtedly have to deal with Facebook Messages, Tweets and other social media accounts and of course Whatsapp and other messengers, too. What burden does this additional volume place on workers?

One would think that with many of us having had an email account (and thus “practise managing emails”) for more than a decade, we would have learnt how to cope with it better than we actually do. Yet, the reality is that email -somehow- finds ever increasing ways of influencing our moods, and thus impacting our lives.

Email – many years ago.

I got my first email account around 1995, which was comparatively early, and not through any of the big providers, but through a “pre-internet” kind of network called “FIDO-NET”. At the time, receiving email was something wonderful, fascinating and truly special. Everybody I knew craved it and there was almost a sense of competition about who would get the most international emails in a week(!) – “You’ve got mail.” is the classic of those times.

Things changed rapidly once I had opened my first company in 1999 which was focusing on the growing e-commerce industry. When I started selling online, I made myself a promise: I (and later my team) should answer every single enquiry that would reach us via our website (or email), within a reasonable time frame and we’d work hard to never *ever* ignore incoming messages. My intention was clear – whether emails were good or bad was secondary – and coming back to the author’s point in the article above →  when somebody is trying to reach you, always look upon it as an opportunity.

Since then, I’ve unfortunately had to loosen up on this promise, mainly because there is a wide misuse of email, its context and relevancy. But with very minor exceptions, I’ve retained the basic attitude behind it and I think it’s one of the reasons why despite ever increasing email numbers year on year, I’ve still been able to manage my inbox and even been able to avoid email overload most of the time.

So how do I think I did it?

Like with many things, one often needs a deeper realization first, before real betterment can occur. Malcolm Gladwell calls this a “Harajuku moment” and describes it as a moment in time where you have a revelation that must happen now, and fast. In Tim Ferriss’s book “The 4-Hour Body”, he describes it as “an epiphany that turns a nice-to-have into a must-have.”

It is this commitment to the basic principle of always answering that has led me to develop a set of action points. But before going through these action points one by one in my next blog post, there is one thing that’s even more important than any Harajuku moment or the following techniques. It’s about what “inbox type” you are and how well you really know yourself in this regard. Let me explain.

Which type of “In-Boxer” are you?

I’ve met a lot of people in this field due to my involvement with Unified Inbox. In this capacity I found there are only three viable methods that work when you’re fighting email overload and it’s really important to understand which type you are first:

A) “Power-Crusher“: You move your inbox down, from top to bottom, until no more scrollbar exists (or you even reach inbox zero). In doing this you make no distinction between the different types of emails ((i.e. tasks, notifications, calendar invites etc.).

B) “Organizer-Separator“. You ask yourself: What’s communication and what are todo’s? Then you’re separating them into two main categories; so the tasks might eventually go into a different place, folder or even different system and emails are cleared from within the inbox itself.

C) “Dynamic-Chaos“. You can’t be bothered with folders or labels and if you have them, they get mixed up anyway. Very few people truly master this category in a way where things don’t get missed, lost or messed up eventually, mainly because this category is as much an art as it is a science. For instance by having only one simple discipline (and doing that well), i.e. “starring emails you want to follow up on” (and not being bothered whether they’re tasks, communication, or similar), such In-Boxers may bring just enough clarity into their chaos, that they’re not even overloaded when there are thousands of emails in their inbox. And for everything else? Well, there is search!

While I started with A), and only after truly mastering it, I can actually see the value in B). However with B) I simply can’t be bothered with spending time on copying data from an inbox into a todo list, unless of course it’s related to a big milestone I just cannot afford to miss anyway. I do admit that I have great respect for the people that manage their professional lives with C) – especially if they’re not pissing anybody off along the way :) – and I can also see the value in its simplicity. But the problem is that less than 1% of the people who think they’ve mastered that category actually did. I dare to say that the other 99% are simply blind – not seeing overload when it occurs!

If you can’t find yourself under either A), B) or C), chances are that you suffer with email overload, or, you’ve found a different solution that I don’t know about – in which case: please share your experiences in the comments.

Tomorrow I’ll be writing about how you can determine an independent indicator which you can use to understand if and when overload occurs, before actually revealing the 5 simple steps towards a continuous email overload improvement process later in the week. Stay tuned!

9 thoughts on “Coping with Email Overload: Which “In-Boxer” type are you?

  1. Pingback: Coping with Email Overload – A Continuous Improvement & Development Cycle | Toby's Blog

  2. Pingback: Coping with Email Overload: What’s your limit? | Toby's Blog

  3. Nice post. Thanks Toby.

    I’m definitely a “power-crusher” and I do a bit of automated “organizing” with filters and auto-filters like Have you given that a try? Likewise, I can’t imagine how the Dynamic-Chaos type do it. My issue is that if I have more than 10 emails in my inbox that haven’t been dealt with, I’m not doing a great job— as I’m a community manager for a startup. That being said, I do my best to spend little time in my inbox and just check in every 2 hours or so to process once and get out. I’ve shared a bit more in a webinar I did in August and wonder if some of those tips are ones you and your community can identify with:


    • Hi Brad – That’s great and thanks for sharing the link to your blog post, too. I’ll dive into this in the 3rd part of the blog series.

      Actually, the Dynamic-Chaos type works for very (very!) few people and personally I have met only two or three (who didn’t mess up things eventually for as far as I could tell at least) over the past 10 years or so… but in this post I did want to acknowledge that this type actually does exist, though being a rare breed.

      For years I was saying to myself, it’s either A or B, there can’t be any C. But then I met a couple of people who are simply geniuses at it, so yes, they are out there :)

      • Dynamic Chaos must be a rare breed indeed ;-) but I do think it’s smart that you included them just to demonstrate that there are many ways to deal with our various workflows. Cheers for the convo and I look forward to the 3rd part of the series!

  4. Actually, I’ve seen “Power-Crushers” who are “Organizer-Separators”, too.

    Maybe the first type describes how a person selects the message, while the second type describes how he deals with it?

    • What was it like observing the “Power-Crushers” who are “Organizer-Separators”? It’s such a different view, that it’ll be interesting to understand more about it.

      In my observation the first type is a bit different from the second type, I’ll be adding a sentence or two in the next part of the blog series. Thanks for your observation on this!

      • Well, they move through inbox top to bottom sorting everything to folders. Only when it’s sorted they read and respond to emails. It’s the way of my father; I’m a regular Power-Crusher myself :) Finding relevant emails has never been an issue, because I always remember enough contents to perform an effective search.

      • Actually the “Organizer-Separators” I meant are sometimes very much compatible with power crushers. They may also start from top to bottom, and they get stuff done, but they make it a point to separate communication from tasks. To them it’s important to track tasks as tasks, i.e. something which cannot be answered in a quick email reply of say 1-2 min, should become a task. Folders, labels etc. they may or may not use. But the focus on what’s a task and what is communication, that’s important to them :)

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