QUIT: Being a Horrible E-mail Correspondent

Cubicle worker FAIL.  For the FDT (Face Down Tuesday) group.  Today this pose is known as planking.[Part of my mission to “live deliberately” involves ruthlessly cutting out anything that saps my time, energy or money to no good end.  I’m calling these things my “Quits,” and this is one of the many items that have found themselves on my Quits List.]


If you’ve ever e-mailed me, there is probably a 75% chance you’ve wondered why I’m ignoring you, begun to think your e-mail might have sucked and I was ignoring you because I was offended by its suckiness, and, if I did ever finally get back to you, secretly hated me for it having taken approximately a millennia.

This has been a secret shame of mine for a long, long time, and I would like to officially apologize to everyone I have done this to.

I have a problem, a serious problem, when it comes to handling my inbox in a way that makes any sort of logical sense, and I’m officially admitting that problem and resolving to learn how to respond to e-mails like the conscientious, invested person I am in every other aspect of my professional life.

Triage #FAIL

The proper way to go through one’s inbox and respond to messages is as follows:

  • Read message.
  • Respond if appropriate, delete if response is unnecessary.  Maybe flag a few for follow-up, but very selectively.
  • Respond to flagged items as soon as you can.
  • Repeat.

The way I process my messages, disgracefully, is more along the lines of:

  • Read message.
  • Respond if I am feeling in the precise right mindstate to do so.  Mark as “unread” if for some reason I’m not yet sure how to respond, if the response required is a long one and I don’t have the time to get into it right now, or if I feel it calls for an especially high level of “Cordelianess” and I’m currently not feeling on my game.  (Responses must be perfect—witty, thoughtful, and value-packed.  People will be disappointed if they are otherwise.)
  • Assume that having message marked as unread means I will definitely get to it the next time I check my inbox.
  • Come back the next time, read more messages, often overlooking the faux unread ones because I’m still for whatever reason not in the right “place” to respond to them perfectly, and having them marked as faux unread fools no one.
  • Feel very guilty about this.  Mark additional messages that have come in since then as faux unread.
  • Begin to stop “seeing” the FU messages as they get farther and farther down my message queue.  Occasionally miss an urgent item I haven’t actually seen yet because it’s hidden by all the FUs.
  • Feel more and more guilty.
  • Wonder if I should just quietly delete the FU messages and hope the senders don’t notice.  (It’s been, like, 3 months by this point; they’ve probably forgotten all about them, anyway, right?)
  • Once every few months, have a massive panic/guilt attack and spend an entire day clearing my inbox down to zero, vowing to never again let things get to that point and feeling like finally I am free.
  • Repeat.

This is by far the most nonsensical and cowardly aspect of my CCIQ brand management.  (Or, in this case, non-management.)

People just want to be responded to.  No one (at least, I don’t think so) will be judging me because my e-mail is slightly lackluster compared to how I imagined it sounding in my head.  No one is going (or at least, I hope they won’t) to hold my response up against one of my 101 posts with a red pen and say, “Nope, the old gal was clearly off with this one.  Poor form indeed.  Time to unsubscribe.”  (Apparently my imaginary critical reader is an old British chap from the nineteen-aughts.)

Why I psyche myself out so much over e-mails in particular, I don’t know—especially not when I regularly post my innermost thoughts and rawest rants here for the entire world to see.  Maybe it’s because the sheer volume of e-mail lends it to easy overwhelm.  It never stops.  It’s very easy for it to pile up even if you’re being diligent about it, let alone playing “If I don’t look at you, you’re not there” like this girl over here.

At any rate, things have gotten to a point beyond ridiculous, and my amazing readers deserve oh so much better.  So here’s the new regiment, implemented by myself for myself, starting now:

The Program to Get With

1.  First, fully catch up on everything that has been neglected to this point.  Remind myself as I slog through pages of old e-mail that this is why this must never happen again.

2.  Slate cleaned, read messages at designated points each day.  During each session, touch each message only once.  Either respond, delete, or flag for follow-up—if and only if I need to take some sort of action before I can respond (double-checking my calendar, gathering additional information, etc.).

3.  Respond to flagged messages the very next time I check my inbox.  If for some reason the legwork needed for a response is going to take a little longer, send a head’s up letting the sender know I’ve received their message and will get back to them shortly.  Get back to them as soon as I possibly can.

4.  Make Monday “inbox zero” day.  No message sits for longer than one week.  Period.

5.  Continue to weed out my volume of incoming messages.  I’m pretty good about regularly unsubscribing to lists I no longer care for.  But I could be better.

Also, automatically delete stupid spam solicitations the instant I realize they are spam.  Do not forward them to my advertising agent in the hopes he can pull his ad magic and turn them into a legitimate offer.  Do not give in to the desire to cuttingly reply, “Dear [first name here], please conduct your research better.  As much as I’d love to be honored on the Top 10 list on [your blog here], I am not a food blog, nor do I aspire to be.”  This is fun, but a waste of time.


So.  To anyone I have ever committed my grievous e-mail offenses against in the past—well, first, please feel free to rail at me in the comments, as I certainly deserve it—and secondly, please know that this horrendous way of conducting things will no longer stand.

It is time for me to start being professional (and practicing some simple human courtesy).

Things will change, I promise.


Postscript:  A great guide to get you started on your own quest to Inbox Zero?  Zen Habits’ 10 Essential Email Habits.

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  • Melissa

    “Apparently my imaginary critical reader is an old British chap from the nineteen-aughts.”

    Hah! So’s mine! I did a writing exercise thingy a few years ago to deal with my artistic self-esteem issues, which involved identifying and naming the inner critic. I named him Sir Reginald Chesterton IV, and he is a stuffy old bastard.

    I call him Reggie when he’s being a twit, ’cause he HATES that and stomps off in a huff of bad pipe smoke and arm-waving. Then I’m free to get my work done, while he’s off sulking.

    My head is an…odd… place, sometimes. 😉

    • This made me laugh out loud. Hope Reggie leaves you alone!

      • Melissa

        Always glad to add a little laughter to someone’s day. 🙂

        He’s gotten better about keeping quiet lately, although it’s an ongoing thing.

    • Perhaps odd, but definitely fun! I should name my imaginary critic so that I can yell at him when he starts to get uppity.

      • Melissa

        Dooo eeet! It’s surprisingly helpful.

        • Sir Norwood Grumpypants? Yeah, I think I’m going with that. 🙂

  • I *just* wrote this topic down on a list of blog post ideas because it’s one of my bad habits (not worst since there are so many, but one of the baddest ones around). It’s not just email…it’s all communication.

    Shoot me a text: I’ll read it, but not respond.
    Call me on the phone: I’ll ignore it even if you call me everyday.
    Send me an email: I’m never writing back.

    Like you, it’s this desire to be in the mindstate. To have the answers. To be ready to “Well, hiya there cowboy! So glad you came on over and shared your mind.” Oh, my inner personality is an Annie Oakley style cowgirl and I do NOT like it.

    So, instead, I allow emails to die. I worry about them, remind myself with post-it notes to write all of these kind people back, and then I run away to watch Downton Abbey or something.

    I definitely need to figure something out because it makes me feel like a terrible: friend, blogger, relative, reader, and human being. Or maybe I just need to dance with the wind in my hair. Oh, and maybe I should stop leaving really long comments here. 😐 You bring it out in me.

    • Yes, yes, and yes. I don’t know why I feel the need to “perform” up to expectations so badly when it comes to email. I’m fine shooting off post comments or Twitter updates without a second thought, but there’s something about email that intimidates the hell out of me. (I have a feeling that “something” is my own silly expectations that I HAVE to perform stellarly.)

      No worries whatsoever on the long comments. I ramble at you all often enough in my posts, you are more than welcome to spill your thoughts in response. 🙂

  • Haha,

    I’m thinking of swapping my regular e-mail management process to your “disgraceful” one – seems really fun!

    • Ah, fun, but at what price, Darius? At what price? 😛

      • Mm, yeah.. That’s the problem with fun – sometimes has waaaay too many not-that-fun side-effects :))

  • Stu

    I like 0 inbox Monday! That’s a fantastic idea. I’ve often tried the 0 inbox… and it never sticks. In fact, at one point I made a Folder called Old Inbox and dumped everything there. Yeah… I’m fairly certain the folder is still there.

    I’ll try your way. See how it works.

    • OMG, I’ve done the same thing! Not to mention old flash drives with docs from computers I’ve long since gotten rid of. I swear I still have papers I wrote in 6th grade on some of them, but I never actually go through them, so I don’t know which are worth keeping and which aren’t. (Although the really old backups that were on floppy disks took care of themselves when computers started coming without floppy disk drives.) 😛

  • This (the avoidance version) is exactly how I handle email. I’ve started putting answering personal emails on my task list. Seriously.

    • I hear you. Inbox Zero Mondays are now on my weekly to-do list. It’s the only way I’m ever going to get a hold of myself.

  • Jen@whenpigsflyblog

    I’m really pretty good about getting through my emails but recently I was pulling the FU email thing. I kept ignoring them as if they’d go away. As you know this is not a good tactic. I too am working on getting rid of the things that drain me.

    • Amen! I just try to remember the “FU” abbreviation when I get tempted to let messages slide, because really that’s what I’m telling all these people taking the time to send me a message. (Except for spammers, who genuinely deserve an FU response.) Puts things in perspective.

      If you ever want to write up a Reader Quit on one of the things you’re working to rid yourself of, consider the door wide open! (*Wink, wink; nudge, nudge*) 🙂

  • Seriously? After reading this post, I’m now convinced that we are the same person. Everything (no, not most–I mean *everything*) that you listed about your “disgraceful” email process is exactly (and disgracefully) what I’m currently doing! Keeping up with my email has always been an issue for me, but I’m now adding this to the list of things I must improve in 2013. Consider me signed up for your 5-Point Email Program, because I need it in my world, stat (I’ve already started on point #5). Thanks for not making me feel alone in my email disgracefulness!

    • Yeah, I’ve had that suspicion myself quite a few times, Shola. It makes me feel much better to know you’ve got the same email hangup. I’m in good company in my need to improve, at least!

  • I used to be bad about “fake unread” emails, too — knowing as I click the unread button that I wasn’t fooling anyone.

    My simplest fix has been committing to following up the same day with at least a note to say “I got this” + a deadline, i.e. “I’ll get back to you by the end of the week.”
    It takes away my guilt if I just don’t FEEL like responding in-depth right now, holds me accountable for answering by a certain time, and gives the reader a deadline after which they can follow up if the email does still happen to sit too long in that shameful FU pile.

    Best of luck with your email cleanse; I hope the QUIT takes another bit of stress out of your life 🙂

  • Ha ha! I love the description of your dysfunctional email habit of making Faux Unread so well. I did that for so long before I discovered GTD. If you haven’t yet been seduced by Getting Things Done, I urge you to check it out! It has saved my sanity many times over.

    For an unconventional guide to GTD, check out http://www.themodernnomad.com/getting-things-done/

    • Awesome link–thank you! I’ve never read the official GTD method, but your posts sums up pretty much what I do with the ToDoIst rolling list I’ve developed. I can’t tell you how much more productive and less stressed I’ve become by having every little step written down to free my brain from having to remember everything.

      That said, it’s clearly time to put some email-related items on my list, because that has been a huge #FAILING hole in the system…

  • Omar

    So in my case, you took a long time to respond to my email with something like “do you still want my feedback?” and I responded “Of course dear” with that amazing british 19th century accent … and my response surely got marked as “unread” n_n

    This post made me laugh a lot, I hope you can make your new system work!

    • And *I* hope you can take it as a long, public apology for your being one of the victims of my horrendous fail. I spend so long worrying over how to respond in the absolute perfect way to personal CCIQ messages that it winds up kicking me in the behind because I just paralyze myself into inaction and give no response. Which is just plain awful.

  • Ah, this is classic! Merlin Mann’s famous inbox (0) methods are tough to stick with. I think it might be worth revisiting them. He’d probably suggest that your Step 1 is actually Step 5. Instead of starting by whittling away at old emails, just move them all into another folder, and start with Inbox (0). Whittle away at them later.

    I wrote about my favorite email smack downs here: http://pilotfire.com/4-ways-to-smack-down-email/

    I always tell people, never “check” email unless you are waiting for something urgent. Instead, when you open email, plan for much more time so you can actually finish your email every time you do it.

    I used to waste time telling people. “Please put your big email list into the BCC category instead of sharing all of those addresses with strangers. That’s how Spam happens.”

    I quit that! Yay!

    BTW Step 5 is probably Step 2. Stop the flood. Good luck.

    • I LOVE your “don’t check email; DO email” message. That mindset may be revolutionary for me. I no longer check compulsively throughout the day, but I do tend to skip in, glance at what’s there, and then plan on taking care of it later. Only I never have time for that “later” because I’m not setting aside an actual window to “do” my email.

      Brilliant way to look at it. You just made my resolution much easier. 🙂

  • THIS IS SO ME! I think I’m worse with texts though for some reason. It’s just like I read it and don’t feel like starting a convo at that moment but then forget and OOOOPS awkward. Going to work on this!

    Just found your blog and I luuuurve it!

    • Aww, thanks, dearie! Luuuurve you back. 🙂

  • My friend Jenny Shih posted some tips to use filters and categories to manage email overwhelm. It took a little time to set up, but now I absolutely love it!

    It’s particularly helpful because now I filter out all the newsletter emails I’m subscribed to so they never show up in my inbox. I can look at them when I want, instead of getting distracted.

    Hope her tips help you too!


    • Awesome tips, Alison. Thanks for sharing!

  • You sooooooo were in my head with this one. I’ve been feeling guilty for awhile because of emails that I know I have not looked at in weeks. I read this just in the nick of time because I was about to go on a rant on Facebook about why people need to just stop emailing so much and pick up the phone and call me. Thanks for convincing me to take more responsibility. 🙂

    • Yay! Glad I could help! It’s not easy, but I’m right there with you. 🙂

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