Slow Death By Email

March 28, 2017

The joy of getting a new computer brings with it much joy yet also much angst.

I spent the better part of the weekend trying to move a massive email backup file over to my new shiny laptop only to find a cloud-based app had been stymying my efforts over and over.

But throughout the process I realised the ridiculousness of having an inbox filled with over 8000 emails.  This was minus the junk mail, Facebook notifications and sales offers.  

Yes, many of these dealt with work but surely it was time to let some of these go?  How many of the 8000 would cause the sky to fall in if they didn’t exist anymore?  The deletion process was nothing short of invigorating.

It got me thinking about how we are hostages to our email.  No, it’s not an original thought but email has become culturally pervasive in our working environments and we don’t adequately address how we can do something about it.

As a consultant, I get to work within a variety of organisations. This provides a bird’s eye view of working cultures, office relationships and operational styles, among other things. Besides the culture of non-stop meetings, email is by far the number one productivity crusher.

There are many articles about how screen time is bad for children yet here we are, as adults, caught in a form of zombie coma because email is a central part of our work life. Let’s get a spotlight on how we are frying our brains as we sit for hours writing messages to one another and pretend it’s majorly important to our success.

The email funk comes in many forms all of which are utterly ridiculous when you spend time thinking about them. With a little more care and acknowledgement of our own personal email practices we can help to minimise the hold that email has on our working lives.  Are you guilty of any of these behaviours?

Sent at 1.30am or worse 4.54am

Those people who spend time increasing your workload as you slumber so that you can wake up and commence your day under the pump and overwhelmed. It’s usually not just one big email outlining everything they want you to do. Oh no, that would be too simple. Try lots of little ones all with different subject headings, sent every couple of minutes.  They will really help to stifle your morning.

The ‘Set and Forget’ email

Email is often used as a responsibility football where someone refers an issue to someone else so they can get one less thing on their to-do list.  These emails often feature major buck passing elements aimed at leaving the responsibility of why something hasn’t been done/finished/progressed with whomever got sent the last email.

The third response

The email which goes back and forth, sometimes between people two partitions away. Yes, things can get lost in translation and create some confusion. If you’re finding yourself needing to continually email back and forth on an issue it’s time to have a conversation with your voice and not your keyboard. My rule is that if you need to send a third email then you should just pick up your phone.


We love people who acknowledge your work and that you’ve done what they wanted you to do. But the amount of emails which just say ‘thanks’ are happy little inbox polluters which should be deleted immediately. If you’re great at your job I can guarantee you’ll find a huge amount hiding in your inbox.

The Novel

Then you have people who explain everything in extreme detail and you need to pick through the email to figure out what you’re meant to do in response.  You know who they are in your office and when you see their name in your inbox it induces deep loathing. These people can add hours to your working day.

The CC-ers

The manager who needs to see everything or the person who thinks everyone needs to be involved, these people have a fetish with circulating innocuous emails to all and sundry including the budgie.  And to move an email conversation out of the original group sometimes feels like you’re having a sneaky secret squirrel moment but hey, it provides a huge form of relief.

Useless subject headings

Headings are there to help us search our flooded inboxes or help us determine how the urgency of an email.  Why are so many people bad at summarising the point of their email in a couple of words in the subject line?

Like that important email you receive telling you to get a presentation written and then send it to seven people, as well as schedule a meeting with all of them, with a subject heading which says, ‘Next week’.  Or the email attachment that wasn’t attached with the original email and then gets sent with no subject line at all or one that says, ‘Here it is’ or worse, ‘Sorry’.  If it’s not easily searchable as a topic then you need to reconsider your subject line.

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