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What’s Better Than Inbox Zero? Meet “Inbox Useful”

Kristen Campbell  |  July 27, 2022

How to create a quieter, kinder email experience, that’s better for both your career and your mental health.

Once upon a time, a new email popping into your inbox could be cause for wonder and delight. (We’ve all seen “You’ve Got Mail,” right?) Those days may be gone, but you can reclaim email as an effective and efficient communication tool. 

While email is an opportunity to be efficient with communication, it’s also a burden, says Adaira Landry, MD, MEd, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School who practices at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. 

And though it’s too late to block the missives that managed to do everything from clutter your inbox to interrupt your dinner, it is the right time to realize it doesn’t have to be that way.

Part of the solution may be to focus less on what’s in your inbox and more on what you’re sending into the ether – and when you’re doing so.

Enter what Landry and Resa E. Lewiss, MD, professor of emergency medicine and radiology at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, call “a compassionate email culture” in the Harvard Business Review

“We are better at taking care of other people than we are ourselves,” Landry says. “And so I think we wanted to sort of put the angle on thinking about how we can protect other people.”

Case in point: Landry says she needed to send emails one evening so she’d have more free time. “But if I were to send them out at 10 p.m., or at 11 p.m., then that only puts that burden onto someone else’s plate. And now they feel this sense of obligation to respond during … that same time frame. 

“And so thinking about someone else is saying, you can still do something for yourself, but let me also be courteous to their free space. So instead of sending it at 10 p.m., I write the email, and I schedule it for a send-out at 9 a.m.,” she says. “It’s really just trying to make sure that we’re thinking about the fact that other people also have burdens, they also need personal time … and really being more mindful of them.”

If scheduling the send time for an email doesn’t work, consider, if applicable, including a note that a response isn’t time sensitive, urgent – or even needed. 

Lisa S. Kaplowitz, assistant professor of professional practice of finance at Rutgers Business School, includes a postscript on her outgoing emails that states: “I am sending this email at a time that is convenient for me and realize you may be juggling other priorities right now. Please read and respond at a time that is convenient for you.”

Kaplowitz says she saw something similar and began including the P.S. in her outgoing messages. 

People need to “not require their team to be always on because then what’s going to happen is the team’s going to burn out, you’re going to lose the talent, and we all know it’s more expensive to replace talent than it is to keep talent,” Kaplowitz says.

Observing that few agreements are made about how email should be used, Colin D. Ellis, author of “The Hybrid Handbook,” notes that “it becomes a tool to cover one’s back and thus waste the time of those who don’t need to read it.”

While email is an asynchronous tool, according to Ellis, “many don’t use it in this way and allow their productive time to be undermined by unnecessary notifications.” He adds, “If everything is seen as urgent, then nothing is treated as urgent and our sense of perspective of what’s a priority is lost.”

It’s important for organizations to identify the main communication platform, the one used as an escalation and the response time expectation, Kaplowitz says. 

“If everybody is aligned at the very beginning and it’s communicated clearly – this is how we are going to communicate within this company or organization – and then everybody is aware and then uses those channels and means of communication, you’re going to have less friction,” Kaplowitz says. 

In addition to establishing agreements and expectations around email, experts offer other tips to improve the inboxes of others – and your own. 

  • Give BCC a chance. “BCC has a bad rap,” says Landry, noting that some have used it in a negative fashion – for example, to hide that another person is paying attention to a conversation. “We are always about transparency, clarity, collaboration, but never deceit,” she says. What BCC is good for, according to Landry, is minimizing the possibility of a reply all. (In other words, it keeps you – or a colleague – from informing everyone what you plan to bring to the potluck.)  “It’s just a more organized way of communicating, and it keeps that inbox tighter,” she says.
  • Consider content. People need to remember that email is “discoverable and forwardable,” says Lewiss, host and creator of The Visible Voices podcast. In addition to thinking carefully about what you choose to include in an email, Landry notes that you should be mindful of what you request others to write. 
  • Mind the medium. “We all have heard commonly, like, if you’re angry, or if you want to write an email quickly, think about it,” Lewiss says. “Taking it a step further is, maybe email’s not the right medium. So I think one of the things we really want to highlight is selecting your medium appropriately.”

Ultimately, to nurture a better cyberspace, Ellis suggests: “Show empathy, compassion, think the best of everyone and never write anything that you wouldn’t be prepared to say to the person’s face. Given that the internet is (largely) unregulated, the onus is on everyone to be a good human and to ensure that the safety – psychological or physical – of others is never undermined.”

Developing new habits may not be easy. But as the executive director of the Rutgers Center for Women in Business, an organization she says is trying to effect change, Kaplowitz says she needs “that space and that place to be creative and to think.” She also just needs time to disconnect and read books that are fun, she says, adding that her family is really active.

“It’s good to be present,” she says. As for the experiences she’s creating with her children and family, she says, “there’s no price on them.”

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