On the Temptation to Declare "Email Bankruptcy"

A couple weeks back, I was listening to Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air interview one of the Twitter founders, Biz Stone. He mentioned the concept of "email bankruptcy," that sometimes — just as with having so many debts that you can't pay, and declaring bankruptcy in hopes of moving forward with a clean slate — sometimes the best thing to do is to alert all the people in your electronic world that you are declaring email bankruptcy and are starting fresh, and to offere some kind of apoligy for getting so far behind. Apparently this notion of email bankrputcy has been around for awhile (see here and here). Author Sherry Trukle joked that a book she is working on would have taken half the time if she didn't have email and that she had some 2500 unanswered emails.

The concept of email bankruptcy really hit home to me because my situation is similar to what Sherry Turkle describes. And it is no joke to me. I am struggling to make progress on a new book with Huggy Rao on scaling (see this little story in HBR), but as of early last week I had about 3000 unanswered emails in my inbox. Note that I feel great obligation to answer all of them, especially emails from readers. But so many have been coming in that I fell way behind. And things were even worse when it came to emails about things like administrative chores and expenses. Well, I have spent much of the past week digging out (two cross-country plane flights with wifi helped a lot) and am down to 400 in my inbox. But my plans to make serious progress on our book last week are shot and I am worried that the 100 to 200 or so emails a day I get will soon drive me back to the edge of bankruptcy.

I am trying certain strategies. There are certain kinds of emails I have stopped answering, such as requests to advertise on my blog or people who don't me but are asking for some kind rather extreme favor (It just amazes me how often I get emails from people whom I have never met asking them to endorse their business in some way... last week a publicist sent a choice of three endorsements for her client's company — note I never met or had heard of the client or company. I eventually figured out the client was a twitter follower.). I am also trying to use filters and blocking more aggressively. At the same time, however, I don't want to block-out or ignore all the people who write me about their sometimes heartwarming and sometimes horrible stories. Clearly, there is a line to walk here. But I am feeling like the temptations of NOW are winning out too often over the more important if less vivid and exciting need to work on stuff that will be done LATER.

I was thinking — as I am leave from Stanford this year and have fewer administrative pressures than usual — about occassionally taking a 72 hour vacation from my email. Perhaps I will try that next week or the week after. But I am not sure that will work (check out John Lilly's post on trying to disconnect). I would love your suggestions here — what works for you? Has anyone declared email bankruptcy or taken vacations? How do you draw the line between emails you ignore versus answer?

Thanks!

P.S. Even though it is Saturday morning, when I started this post perhaps 15 minutes ago, there were 398 emails in my inbox (whittled down from about 3000). Now there are 407.

Reprinted from Work Matters

Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. Follow him at twitter.com/work_matters.

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2 Comments

  • Michele Grady

    I find Bible stories can illuminate every dilemma in life. There is a story of Jesus being pressed by a crowd. All looking to be healed. All touching him. Yet, he sensed only one persons physical touch. Only one person was healed. The one who was genuinely seeking him, in need of him, toched him and in exchanged recieved his touch. Not everyone who touches you - emails you, really needs you. Not everyone who touches you will benefit from your touch. Answers first those e-mails that touch you, that need your support, encourgement,friendship. Once you have put those to the top, the rest is the rest.

  • Julie Clitheroe

    I have declared email bankruptcy in the past and it worked quite effectively. If I hadn't read an email older than a certain period of time, (this would be different for each user so each should decide the best time frame for them), I would simply delete those prior to that datye. If the email was that important and the sender hadn't heard from me the assumption is they would send a follow up email to which I would reply including an apology for the delay.
    Julie