EMail / Work

“Not answering emails today is like refusing to take phone calls in the 1990s or ignoring letters in the 1950s”

Spending hours a day answering emails can stand in the way of getting other things done. One recent study shows that on days when managers face heavy email demands, they make less progress toward their goals and end up being less proactive in communicating their vision and setting expectations.

But that same study shows that email load takes a toll only if it’s not central to your job. And let’s face it: These days email is central to most jobs. What we really need to do is to make email something we think carefully about before sending, and therefore feel genuinely bad ignoring.

Whatever boundaries you choose, don’t abandon your inbox altogether. Not answering emails today is like refusing to take phone calls in the 1990s or ignoring letters in the 1950s. Email is not household clutter and you’re not Marie Kondo. Ping!

Your inbox isn’t just a list of other people’s tasks. It’s where other people help you do your job. It allows you to pose questions with a few keystrokes instead of spending the whole day on the phone, and it’s vital to gathering information that you can’t easily find in a Google search.

“My inbox is other people’s priorities” bothers me as a social scientist, but also as a human being. Your priorities should include other people and their priorities. It’s common courtesy to engage with people who are thoughtful in reaching out.

This isn’t just about doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Clearing out your inbox can jump-start your own productivity. One set of experiments showed that if you’re behind on a task, you’ll finish it faster if you’re busy, because you know you need to use your time efficiently. As a writer, I like to start the morning by answering a few emails — it helps me get into a productive rhythm of deep work. If you think you have too many emails, maybe you just don’t have enough.

Everyone occasionally misses an email. But if you’re habitually “too busy” to answer legitimate emails, there’s a problem with your process. It sends a signal that you’re disorganized — or that you just don’t care.

Adam Grant, “No, You Can’t Ignore Email. It’s Rude.”, The New York Times (17 February 2019), SR9.