When Email Overload Actually Works In Your Favor

Amid all the talk of inbox zero, there are actually advocates for engineering email inundation into your work flow. If it's time to embrace the bloated inbox, read on.

Erica Cerulo describes her inbox as "the scariest." "I don't delete anything. I have hundreds of thousands of emails—I had to buy more Gmail storage," the Of a Kind founder told Fast Company. If inbox zero is zen, Cerulo's email situation is mayhem. But, she doesn't feel overwhelmed by it; she embraces the chaos. "My system works for me," she added.

Both Cerulo and her Of a Kind co-founder, Claire Mazur, are email advocates. Mazur's inbox isn't quite at the level of her partner's, but any champion of inbox zero would cringe at its disorder. Like Cerulo, she accepts the overload. "It is what it is," she said.

Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo

It's not that Cerulo and Mazur have given up, letting their unruly inboxes rule their lives. In fact, they have engineered the email inundation into their work flow.

"We CC each other on every single email—even if it has nothing to do with the other person," explained Mazur. "We CC each other to the point where I accidentally CC Erica on emails with my wedding planner." As you can imagine, the rule results in inbox insanity.

Appropriately, the company's origin story also involves frantic email. The two friends, who met in 2002 at the University of Chicago, conceptualized the design-focused shopping destination over 25 frantic emails in 12 hours. The habit seems to have stuck because now the two message each other all day, every day. They even have their Google Calendars synched, including personal events.

All this oversharing might sound horrible, invasive, and overwhelming to many of us. But Cerulo and Mazur find it reduces their stress. The two adopted the CC everything policy when they first started the site back in 2010. "When you’re setting up a business and you have to get your tax ID, and get a payment process, and all this stuff there's a million emails going back and forth and a million things to do," explained Mazur. "Not necessarily knowing what's happening becomes really stressful."

They haven't stopped CC'ing since.

Over time they have developed some rules for maintaining order within the chaos. For each email they declare a "lead." While one of them is responsible for responding and managing the email, the other can check out of that conversation, glossing over its contents, or archiving it right away. "It avoids any crossed wires or any miscommunication or mixed messages we might send," said Cerulo. They also use Streak to help track projects within Gmail.

But inbox infinity is more than an organizational tool. The two insist that their system increases creativity and strengthens their partnership. Here's how:

Fewer Meetings, More Time For Creating

Because of their open communication, the two don't have to check in with one another every day about company minutia because they already know what the other has got going on. "We don't have to nag each other all the time," said Mazur. They still have a weekly sit-down, but instead of focusing on tiny details, they take that time to brainstorm and talk about potential products and more creative undertakings.

If either wants an update on the status of a particular project, she can just search her email. (Both Mazur and Cerulo have an everything-gets-archived policy, allowing them to use their inboxes as search engines.)

More Brain Space For Other Things

For Mazur and Cerulo, their inboxes serve the same function as a master to-do list. Cataloging tasks in one easily searchable place opens up bandwidth for other things. "We don't waste brain space trying to remember if this got done, or losing sleep about some little thing that the other one may have taken care of, or bugging each other about scheduling nonsense," said Cerulo.

More Informed Collaboration

Although neither Cerulo nor Mazur thoroughly engage with every email, both have some sense of each other's projects. If either needs advice, the other can offer a more informed take, leading to better collaboration. "Because I'm CC-ed on everything, and because I know what's happening in things relating to Erica's role, I'm a better brainstorm partner for her," explains Mazur. If she asks for help with a new editorial concept, for example, because Mazur sees all editorial related emails, she has a better sense of how that new initiative might work.

What works for Mazur and Cerulo might not appeal to the type-A person who can't handle email clutter. But, the system has benefited them and their business. Investors often commented on their close relationship as an asset.

Their company has also grown from three to five employees in the last year, not including their bevy of freelancers. But they offer another measure of success: "The best sort of proof is that we still like each other," said Cerulo. "We started this as friends, and have managed to create a successful business alongside that friendship."

[Image: Flickr user Terry Johnston]

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5 Comments

  • I had a very smart physicist acquaintance who was convinced that punch cards outweighed the benefits of editing programs using interactive terminals...point is, not every idea that works for some people is a good idea for the masses. Searching through bottomless inboxes using search to find the most recent versions of documents is one of the biggest time sucks on the planet. Do we really want to recommend this as a viable way to collaborate? In 2014? There are so many better ways....like two cans connected by a string for example.

  • First, Rebecca, nice article. A member of the Independent Consultants group, over in LinkedIn, linked to it and asked if zero inbox is the goal, then how do group members manage. See my two-part response.

    SEE | http://linkd.in/1fjGsS2

    However, Rebecca, I have a quibble with your writing. I don't know if you've been to journalism school, or own an AP Stylebook, but at least the latter should be true.

    Look at your first paragaph. You can't include the quote in the same paragraph as all leading up to and away from it. Because you did that, you've got a phrase, in quotes, immediately followed by the opening quote of the subject's quoted words. Can't do that. Quotes get their own graphs.

    Fast company, it seems, needs a professional copy editor. Don't be offended, Rebecca. Everyone needs one. Everyone.

    Absent one, please get an AP Stylebook and actually use it. It'll help a lot.

  • JUSTIN JACOBY SMITH WROTE: This is monkeyballs.

    MY RESPONSE: Meaning precisely what, Justin? Would it be asking too much for you to bother to be clear and concise? O even understood? Apparently, you think it's okay to live in a world where the best we can do is that maybe one of these definitions is what you meant...

    SEE | http://bit.ly/1rxQscf (the Urban Dictionary)

    ...and maybe not. [shakes head in disbelief]

    Young people, today, think the world can be covered in 140-characters or less; that The Daily Show is actually news; that they can actually multi-task, when all they're really achieving is all breadth and no depth. A New Yorker-length magazine article would like to KILL most of them.

    Yet we keep being told that they're our tomorrow's leaders.

    Yikes!