Thinking about: The Tyranny of Email


“Reply-all will be the death of me.” I read that somewhere the other day, perhaps on a satirical greeting card about office life? It resonated. My inbox is out of control.

And I’m not alone.

Nearly 30% of our workweek is apparently spent reading and responding to email, a figure which may or may not also take into account personal email. Over the summer I read a New York Times article enitled “End the Tyranny of 24/7 Email.” Yes, I thought, the “tyranny!” (I proudly resisted the urge to forward it to Aron, and instead told him about it over dinner.)

I’ve thought about the article, which started by describing an email policy at German automaker Daimler, many times since: “employees can set their corporate email to ‘holiday mode.’ Anyone who emails them gets an auto-reply saying the employee isn’t in, and offering contact details for an alternate, on-call staff person.” Nothing so revolutionary so far, right? But wait: “Then poof, the incoming email is deleted—so that employees don’t have to return to inboxes engorged with digital missives in their absence.” Deleted! If you need urgent help, you have someone to contact. But most people don’t.

If email lands in your inbox when you’re off work or on vacation, you’re likely to read it. One could argue that it’s on the recipient to manage his or her own time, but the article talks about shifting some of the responsibility back to the sender with talk of how over-use of “cc” often masks bad management or poor decision-making skills. (Insert image of me nodding and reading.)

The problem is the addiction-potential of email: an article in The Guardian likens it to gambling and quotes that “it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email. So people who check their email every five minutes waste 8.5 hours a week figuring out what they were doing moments before.”

That’s right: most of us spend hours trying to remember what it was we were just doing. Every week. Yikes.


James Hamblin, at The Atlantic‘s Video site (one of my favorite places online these days), has a humorous solution: the Cool button. His fantastic segment “Email is Ruining Us” proposes that what we need is a “like” button for email. This would cover acknowledging receipt, doling out praise, and such. It could stand-in for what would probably be a smile or even laughter. In other words, I could reply to a PR pitch with “Got it! Cool!” with a single button.

My father-in-law (I hope he won’t mind me sharing) used to reply to many emails with the phrase “Noted.” I envied his brevity and lamented to Aron, once, that as a young person (and a female one), I fear the interpretation would be less than positive should I do the same.


Ultimately, the task of managing my inbox falls to me. I’m going to be working on unsubscribing from listservs and using more categories and rules in my inbox. And I just set up a FAQ page for the blog!

Here’s some some etiquette I wish we could all take endeavor to adopt, based on my own personal pet peeves. Ask oneself:

  • Are you forwarding items from a subscription service? That someone else could choose to subscribe to? Think twice.
  • Are you doing them a favor by sending that message? Or are you just absolving yourself from the duty of remembering to tell them later?
  • Does everyone want their email address shared? Use the Bcc field when sending a message to a large group rather than Cc.
  • Do you need a reply? If not, use the phrase FYI in the subject line. No reply saying “Got it!” required.
  • Have you given the recipient adequate time to reply before re-sending? (Re-sent press releases are enemy #1 around in my books.)
  • Have you tried Googling that?

What would you add? How do you deal with inbox tyranny? What are your pet-peeves? Spill. Get it all out.

P.S. Lest I sound like a curmudgeon, or worse a hypocrite, a caveat: I do, in fact, like getting personal emails, and I probably fail at all this myself on a regular basis. Also, more Thinking About columns.

[Photos: Top, mine; Bottom, via Huffington Post/Getty Images]

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