What does your overflowing inbox say about you?

Having 400 unread messages at any given time could be a sign you’re just too busy and important to read everything. On the other hand, people might perceive that you’re not on top of things.

It’s a common refrain in our industry:

“I have (insert extremely high number here) unread emails. I’m not sure how I’m going to get through them all.”

Sure, this statement frequently comes after a vacation of some sort. To be expected, right? Yet this often comes up as a day-to-day refrain among corporate folks. As someone who’s had his fair share of full inboxes—and someone who’s very curious as to how people manage their email—I’m always intrigued by this statement.

I think the perception people think they’re giving off when they repeat this statement to colleagues and their teammates is this:

“I’m very, very busy. Don’t you know who I am?”

OK, so I’m embellishing with that second part, but I believe the first part is true.

In my view, here’s what that statement really says:

“I have absolutely no desk time since I’m trapped in meetings all day and I have no way of effectively managing my inbox.”

So then my question becomes: Why would anyone ever say this out loud? Especially a leader or manager who may be making the statement to his or her team?

Isn’t that borderline offensive? It’s kinda like saying:

“I know I’m your boss and all, but I really have no time or idea about how to manage my inbox.”

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m no expert on email inbox management. (I really struggle to manage two inboxes because I have a “work” email and my Gmail account.) I have a simple rule: I try to respond within 24 hours to all messages in my “work” account (not pitches or other out-of-the-blue emails; I’m talking about emails from teammates, clients, or other business associates). If I can’t do that, I shouldn’t have a job.

So, my feeling is, shouldn’t that same courtesy extend to others?

As I said, for some people, this is all about desk time (and I empathize). Most leaders/managers allow email to build up simply because they’re not at their desk to respond to it. This is why you see managers on their phones during meetings; it’s the only time they have to check email. Chances are they’re triaging their inbox. Probably what I would do if I were in their shoes.

I’m not sure it excuses the above statement, or the behavior. There are countless strategies to more effectively managing your inbox; I won’t go into them here, but you can research them here and here.

The point is: Look into options and figure out a strategy that works for you. After all, email is still the primary communication tool within organizations. Sure, a big chunk of those emails are CC’ed messages, but that should make it even easier to target the messages you should respond to each day.

What do you think? Should people with overflowing inboxes really be talking about how many unread emails they have? I’m curious about what people think.

Arik Hanson is principal of ACH Communications. A version of this article originally ran on his blog, Communications Conversations.

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