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.

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18 comments on “400 unread emails in your inbox: Does that make you important or inept?

  1. Jill Levenson says:

    I am SO tired of hearing people (especially my boss!) talk about inbox overflow as if it’s a good thing. And I do hear that “I’m so important” ego-stroking in the undertones of those comments – I don’t think that’s really an exaggeration.
    I get 500+ emails a day split between several inboxes, and I still find a way to respond to most of the important ones within 24 hours. I certainly still struggle with email as a means for collaboration. I’ve attempted to switch as many workflows over to hosted documents as possible, but I’ve met with all kinds of resistance. I adopted SaneBox over a year ago – because it helps filter out the hundreds of unimportant emails and surfaces the important ones, and I swear my blood pressure goes up if their server goes down for more than 5 minutes.

  2. mjkeliher says:

    Inbox Zero A) makes life easier and B) isn’t _at all_ difficult to achieve. People who don’t practice it seem to have a “earth is flat” sort of mentality: The can’t possibly believe what I’m saying is true, so they just ignore it.

  3. MattLaCasse says:

    I’d agree with your assessment here, @arikhanson . And beyond being courteous, if you have that many unread emails, why would I assume you’d ever get back to me? If you’re my manager I’m more likely to just take the initiative and get done what needs to be done without seeking your advice. Not answering email seems to be a good way to gum up the works of your organization…or even your livelihood. How many missed opportunities are sitting in that sea of unread email?
    If you take 5 minutes each hour to either answer or classify each email, it’s simple to manage. And as others said here (and on Facebook), if you can’t manage an inbox…how can you manage an organization?

  4. bradmarley says:

    I don’t think anyone purposely brags about their overflowing inbox, but it certainly comes off that way. If anything, it’s a cry for help.
    I don’t know about you, but when my inbox is at capacity, it only adds to my stress level. The messages may be digital, but they feel like a physical weight bearing down on me. The most simple way to manage this is to set aside time every week (day?) to go through your email, even if it is after work hours.
    It might feel like a part-time job, but it has to be done.

  5. ericajmoss says:

    @bradmarley This is actually one of my biggest pet peeves — because I know a handful of people who do purposely brag about it on a regular basis (More emails means greater importance!) Managing multiple inboxes is just a fact of life, so it’s important to find and execute a strategy that works for you.

  6. TomMartin says:

    Maybe you’re asking the wrong question…. maybe the question should be — if you’re spending all your time in meetings, and thus have 400 emails in your inbox — are you inept?It’s easy to sit in meetings all day and “feel” busy — but truth be told, most folks can cut their meeting time significantly each day if they’d ask themselves — do I really need to be in this meeting or could someone just email me a meeting report?

  7. arikhanson says:

    @TomMartin Don’t get me started on meetings sir…

  8. arikhanson says:

    @bradmarley You’re probably right. But that’s kinda my point. Just don’t talk  about it–no one comes out looking good…

  9. arikhanson says:

    @mjkeliher Exactly. Not nearly as hard as people think it is. Completely agree.

  10. arikhanson says:

    @Jill Levenson Google Docs? I’ve found that to be pretty universal in acceptance. Some of the other tools though–yeah, tougher for people to adopt. Fear creeps in…

  11. bradmarley says:

    @ericajmoss Just think of how much time they could save by managing instead of moaning about it. Very annoying.

  12. dnovich says:

    I agree with you. It is an excuse that equates to: “I am sorry I haven’t gotten back to you. It’s just been crazy around here.” If that is used occasionally, then I would not be concerned about it. But if someone is constantly having trouble “managing their emails,” then he either needs help figuring out how and when to read emails, or he just really doesn’t want to deal with you.

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