400 unread emails in your inbox: Does that make you important or inept?

It’s a common refrain in our industry, right? I have (insert extremely high number here) unread emails–I’m not sure how I’m going to get through them all. Sure, this statement frequently comes after a vacation of some sort. To be expected, right? But, going back to my days on the corporate side, this often comes up as a refrain in day-to-day activities among folks as well.

Email Overload

As someone who’s had his fair share of full email inboxes–and someone who’s very curious as to how people manage their inboxes–I’m always intrigued by this statement.

I think the perception people THINK they’re giving off when they repeat this statement to colleagues and their teammates is this:

“I’m very, very busy. Don’t you know who I am?”

OK, so I’m embellishing a bit with that second part, but the first part I believe to be true.

In my view, here’s what that statement really says:

“I have absolutely no desk time since I’m trapped in meetings all day and I have no way of effectively managing my inbox.”

So then my question becomes: Why would anyone ever say this out loud? Especially a leader or manager who may be making the statement to his or her team?

Isn’t that borderline offensive? It’s kinda like saying, “I know I’m your boss and all, but I really have no time or idea about how to manage my inbox.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no expert when it comes to email inbox management (in fact, I really struggle to manage two inboxes since I have a “work” email, and my Gmail account). But, I have a simple rule. I try to respond to all messages in my “work” account (not pitches or other out-of-the-blue emails–I’m talking about emails from teammates, clients or other business people I work with) within 24 hours. If I can’t do that, I shouldn’t have a job.

So, my feeling is, shouldn’t that same courtesy extend to others?

Like I said, for some people, this is all about desk time (and I definitely emphathize). Most leaders/managers allow email to build up simply because they’re not at their desk to respond to it. This is why you see managers on their phones during meetings–it’s the only time they have to check email! Chances are they’re triaging their inbox. Probably what I would do if I were in their shoes.

But, I’m not sure it excuses the statement above–or the behavior. There are countless strategies to more effectively managing your inbox–and I won’t go into them here, but you can research them here and here.

The point is: Look into options and figure out a strategy that works for you. After all, email is still the primary communication tool within organizations. Sure, a big chunk of those emails are CC’ed messages. But, that should make it even easier to target the messages you need to respond to on a daily basis.

Enough from me. What do you think? Should people with over-flowed inboxes really be talking about how many unread emails they have? I’m really curious about what people think on this one.