By Adam Grant for The New York Times
Whether you’re a devout practitioner of “inbox-zero” or a functional e-mail hoarder, you probably have some sort of professional philosophy on e-mail. But is there an optimal approach?
Yes, we’re all overwhelmed with email. One recent survey suggested that the average American’s inbox has 199 unread messages. But volume isn’t an excuse for not replying. Ignoring email is an act of incivility.
“I’m too busy to answer your email” really means “Your email is not a priority for me right now.” That’s a popular justification for neglecting your inbox: It’s full of other people’s priorities. But there’s a growing body of evidence that if you care about being good at your job, your inbox should be a priority.
When researchers compiled a huge database of the digital habits of teams at Microsoft, they found that the clearest warning sign of an ineffective manager was being slow to answer emails. Responding in a timely manner shows that you are conscientious — organized, dependable and hardworking. And that matters. In a comprehensive analysis of people in hundreds of occupations, conscientiousness was the single best personality predictor of job performance. (It turns out that people who are rude online tend to be rude offline, too.)
I’m not saying you have to answer every email. Your brain is not just sitting there waiting to be picked. If senders aren’t considerate enough to do their homework and ask a question you’re qualified to answer, you don’t owe them anything back.
How do you know if an email you’ve received — or even more important, one you’re considering writing — doesn’t deserve a response? After all, sending an inappropriate email can be as rude as ignoring a polite one.
I have a few general rules. You should not feel obliged to respond to strangers asking you to share their content on social media, introduce them to your more famous colleagues, spend hours advising them on something they’ve created or “jump on a call this afternoon.” If someone you barely know emails you a dozen times a month and is always asking you to do something for him, you can ignore those emails guilt-free.
Along these lines, the last time I made the mistake of admitting in this newspaper that I believe in being responsive to emails, I got a deluge of messages. One reader even wrote, “I just wanted to test you, to find out if it’s true.” So this time, let me be clear: I’m not writing this article as a personal note to your inbox, so it doesn’t require a personal reply to mine.
We all need to set boundaries. People shouldn’t be forced to answer endless emails outside work hours — which is why some companies have policies against checking emails on nights and weekends. Some people I know tell their colleagues they’ll be on email from 9 to 10 a.m. and 2 to 3 p.m. each day, but not in between. If it’s not an emergency, no one should expect you to respond right away.
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.
If you’re just hopelessly behind on your inbox, at least set up an auto-reply giving people another channel where they can reach you. A Slack channel. Twitter. A phone number. Post-it notes. Carrier pigeon.
Remember that a short reply is kinder and more professional than none at all. If you have too much on your plate, come clean: “I don’t have the bandwidth to add this.” If it’s not your expertise, just say so: “Sorry, this isn’t in my wheelhouse.” And if you want to say no, just say “no.”
We can all learn from the writer E.B. White, who, in response to a 1956 letter asking him to join a committee, responded with two short sentences. The first: a thank-you for the invitation. The second: “I must decline, for secret reasons.”