Gini Dietrich

The Ever-Looming Inbox

By: Gini Dietrich | February 15, 2012 | 

During this week’s Inside PR (yet to be posted), Joe Thornley, Martin Waxman, and I discuss the ever-looming inbox.

You see, I’m a “get it cleaned out every day” kind of person. Having unopened, unread, or unanswered emails makes me nuts.

Mr. D makes fun of me. He says no one else in the whole world uses email the way I do. Sure, I’ll admit I’m a little OCD about it.

But email is a problem. For all of us.

Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist in New York City, wrote a blog post last week titled, “The Black Hole of Email.” In it he laments how he spends about three hours every day on email.

I have never ever been so behind on email as I am right now. I believe I am seeing about one third of all email that is sent to me. I write these posts occasionally to let people know. The result is hundreds of comments about how I can make email work better for me. Please don’t leave those comments. I don’t want to make email work better for me. I don’t want to hire an assistant to do email for me. I don’t want to try some new magical app that will make email better for me.

I give email an hour in the morning, an hour in the evening, and I dive into it throughout the day. The result is probably three hours a day in total. That’s all I’m going to give email. And it is not enough to manage the inbound flow.

Curious, I looked at my timesheet for the past month to see how much time I’m spending on email every day. It’s about two hours every day, but that doesn’t count the emails I quickly answer throughout the day. If I had to guess, it’d be close to the three hours Fred spends.

It’s a topic of conversation during every one of our staff meetings. My inbox is getting unwieldy and I don’t want to be a bottleneck for my team, especially while I’m on the road.

Sometimes there are quick questions that can be answered via text or one of the social networks. But other times there are strategic reviews or approvals that cannot be delegated. And all of that comes via email.

But what is really interesting about this exercise, and what Joe, Martin, and I discuss during the podcast, is not one person manages email the same.

For instance, I prefer one email at the end of every day that includes everything my colleagues need from me. Other members of my team prefer an email for every, little thing so they can save and file appropriately.

It’s definitely not a one size fits all approach. But it’s an issue for every, single one of us that no amount of organization will help. Heck, I have Patti Knight, who sorts through things, and it’s still out of control.

I wish I had a magical answer on how to control it. I don’t. Which is why it’s a topic in every one of our staff meetings.

But I do now know not everyone manages it the same. Because of that, it’s important to consider how your colleagues, peers, and friends manage their inboxes…and be considerate. Just because it’s easy to send an email doesn’t always mean you should.

Also please, for the love all of things good, stop using the reply all button.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • I’m terrible at email management, but my “system” works for me. I’m logged in all day (when I’m not in meetings with clients) and try to respond to emails as quickly as I can. Certainly there are times I wait to respond because I’m busy and don’t want to stop the flow or break my train of thought.

    Plus, I use email differently with different people. I’ve learned which people respond better to email, and which might prefer a quick convo on skype or g-chat or a Facebook message.

    Like I said, I could be better organized, but it works for me, and feeds into who I am.

    • DoTime_WX

      @KenMueller Agree, have to manage email according to open time slots. At times I can’t get to email until late at night on busiest days.

      • ginidietrich

        @DoTime_WX @KenMueller I like to do mine very first thing in the morning. At least I start my day with a clean inbox!

        • @ginidietrich @DoTime_WX I”m never at inbox zero. I have certain emails to that I like to refer back to, and I know i should file them in folders, but…

        • ginidietrich

          @KenMueller See, that would drive me nuts. But then, I’m OCD.

        • @ginidietrich @DoTime_WX @KenMueller Agree! Clean Inbox, clean mind.

        • @ginidietrich @KenMueller I am far from OCD, but I can stand to see those little numbers for whats in my inbox, same with missed calls & voicemails! UGH!

    • ginidietrich

      @KenMueller I used to do it that way, but it was preventing me from being productive. We’re trying the one email a day from each of my team, rather than emails thrown at me all day long, and it’s working. So far.

  • I have to say, the iPhone and Blackberry have really killed the art of emailing imo. Often people are that impatient that they want their emails immediately, but have far less interest in responding to emails or taking the time to properly respond to emails.

    When I read an email on my phone I always mark it as ‘keep as new’, keeping it as ‘read’ is easy to forget about.

    • ginidietrich

      @YasinAkgun You know what? I’ve never thought about keeping it as new so it appears in my inbox as unread. That’s a really good idea!

      • @ginidietrich @YasinAkgun Any email that I can’t address right away, i mark as unread and then flag it, so I can’t possibly forget to go back and address it.

    • M_Koehler

      @YasinAkgun is right, people have this unrealistic expectation that their emails need to be answered immediatly. I know I’ve continued to foster that problem, but with more and more people here getting their email via mobile devices that expectation is now the norm not the exception. And I don’t have any ideas on how to shift this back.

  • You are so right, Gini. This is a tough battle for all of us and it’s only getting tougher.

    I never used to be an “inbox zero” kind of girl, but have converted to that mindset in the past couple of years. I definitely did that with my former job. This helped me:

    Now, I use Google Apps email for my business, and it works very differently, so I’m still trying to figure out my rhythm with it. I know I can use Outlook or mail with it, but there are some things I like with having my email web-based.

    I think the hard thing is finding balance. I agree with doing emails in chunks – morning, noon and evening. Yet, I think many people (especially clients) expect immediate response. We’ve trained people to expect this, so it’s hard to strike that balance between being responsive and getting things done. Let me know if you find the magic formula!!!

    • ginidietrich

      @lauraclick I’ve definitely set expectations with my team and our clients that I just can’t respond in real time. Of course, if I see something urgent, I respond immediately, but that’s assuming I’m at my desk and not speaking or with a client. There have been times that I’m so far behind in email, I’ll set an out of office that says so. That way people know I’ll get to them OR they can resend something, in case I missed it.

  • I recently examined my inbox for information that is related to client, learning/helpful content and current events/information. If its from a person or organization I don’t get immediate value from or compelling enough review later, I unsubscribe. And a quick question, Gini: You have a time code for email or do you call it something like admin?

    • ginidietrich

      @BobReed I just put it under organization. A couple of months ago, I went through a big purge and unsubscribed to a bunch of things. Then my junk mail doubled. I later learned that’s how companies know whether or not your email address is a live one. Sigh…

      • @ginidietrich Thanks, Gini. “Yikes” on the second part of your answer.

  • robbyslaughter

    Email is the number one technology-centric productivity problem at the office. In fact, we have a whole series of workshops around email that are designed to radically change your perspective on email so that you can get more done.

    An empty inbox is part of the process—but what is more important is to train other people through your own email behavior. The WORST thing you can do is respond to an email instantly. That teaches individuals to think you are always available.

    Instead, you should respond to emails AT LEAST four hours later, if not the next day. That forces people to call you if they need you (which is hard to do) or try to find the answer themselves. It gives you time to deal with real work, which happens outside of email.

    Email is killing us because we use it for EVERYTHING, INSTANTLY. If we only used email for meaningful, non-urgent interaction and didn’t try to store our entire lives in a folder system, we’d find ourselves able to get so much more done.

    • ginidietrich

      @robbyslaughter Last year I started closing my email entirely, just so I could focus on work. People went through a bit of withdrawal – because I had trained them that I do respond immediately. Now they know I’ll get to them in the AM and PM. It’s all about setting expectations. But it doesn’t stop the sheer number of emails one receives during the day.

  • M_Koehler

    You know my thoughts on this matter. My out of control amount of email is the #1 reason I do not take time off, even when I’m sick…like now. On light days it’s about 200, on normal days closer to 400 incoming emails. Last vacation I took, I sent you what the count was when I got back. It was something like 7,000 or so after everything that auto-deletes and auto-files was removed. The stress of dealing with that amount of work washes away any recharging I may have gotten from taking time off.

    I hate email in my inbox. Inbox is meant for new email and unfinished things, not a storage for everything. So many people here do not understand the concept of organization. You should NOT have hundreds if not thousands of emails in your inbox. If it’s something that’s done or you no longer need it, delete or file it away. I hate having to sit with someone who is unorganized. It drives me crazy and I just want to take over their computer and fix their email. I only keep things in my inbox that I have to work on and when doen file and delete. At most I only try to let about 20 things stay in there. With the amount of work I have to do, it gets really hard to keep up if I let it get worse. Plus in my job, everything is a fire drill so I have to stay on top of things or some not so nice things happen. Who knew petfood was life or death….

    • ginidietrich

      @M_Koehler I manage email the same way – the inbox is for unread and unfinished things. Totally agree!

      • M_Koehler

        @ginidietrich It’s such a simple concept yet so many people don’t do it. Not saying it’s the best way, but it’s fast and effective.

        And don’t even get me started on the REPLY ALL issue. DO NOT REPLY TO ALL is permantly attached to all corporate email that goes out as we always get 20-30 people that hit it anyway. 1 guy actually got fired for a comment he made when he did that. It was just a little offensive.

        • ginidietrich

          @M_Koehler It really says DO NOT REPLY ALL in all emails? That’s awesome.

        • M_Koehler

          @ginidietrich Yep. Next big we get, I’ll try to remember to forward to you.

        • @M_Koehler@ginidietrich I think we should add that to our emails! LOVE!!!!

  • I tend to ignore emails with in the URL…

    • ginidietrich

      @DannyBrown Weird. We tend to ignore anything from Danny Brown, no matter the email address.

      • @ginidietrich @DannyBrown my inbox would be empty if not for emails from Jungoo and A-D so I say keep em coming. All 27 per day. Makes me feel loved.

      • @ginidietrich You do know that will stop you getting awesome examples of PR pitches…?

        • ginidietrich

          @DannyBrown Just because I ignore you doesn’t mean you stop sending them.

        • @ginidietrich@DannyBrown Please please don’t stop the daily entertainment with the douchey pitches. I need my laugh.

        • @Lisa Gerber @ginidietrich @DannyBrown I think we should all set a time one day where we ALL send Gini an email. Doesn’t matter what it’s about, but we need to inundate her just when she thinks she has reached in-box zero. I’m sure we could rally the troops around this cause…

        • ginidietrich

          @KenMueller That’s not funny.

        • @ginidietrich Um, I bet @TheJackB and @DannyBrown would think it’s funny…

        • @KenMueller @ginidietrich @TheJackB @DannyBrown Actually, I saw Ken’s idea in my inbox before I saw Gini’s response to it when I came over here, and I came to say the same thing: To be a killjoy and Kibosh that idea immediately.

          That would push my Gini over the edge.

          #newlywedgame (inside joke)

        • @Lisa Gerber @ginidietrich @TheJackB@DannyBrown yeah, but you don’t like conversation hearts or marshmallows. Not sure your opinion counts. You don’t understand the entertainment value the rest of us would get from seeing YOUR Gini being pushed over the edge.

        • @KenMueller @Lisa Gerber @ginidietrich Love. It. I’ll set up a Google Doc to co-ordinate.

  • This is tough I have pages of unread emails. 99% are trade pub news since I get about 70 per day most I don’t open some I save and open later. Others languish. Thus the reason for a great Subject line!

    But I make sure all business are cared for each day.

    • ginidietrich

      @HowieSPM Why don’t you just delete them?

    • gojohnab

      @HowieSPM I created a special gmail address to send ALL trade pub alerts, social media registrations and everything that isn’t client related “must-respond”. This way, while the information is important, I don’t have the clutter in my inbox and I can go retrieve them and digest them when I have time without having anxiety about missing potentially vital work emails due to the added volume.

  • I am SO with you on the “reply all” button. UGH UGH UGH UGH UGH!!!!

    i signed up for Boomerang for Gmail a while back, and love it. While it doesn’t get rid of the clutter in my inbox completely (sorting & filters help with those, though), it lets me schedule emails to be sent out at a later date/time. So if I’m up early, as I usually am, and checking email, I can rip through a ton of them that need replies, but then schedule them to go out later (clients don’t need to get used to me emailing them at 5 am). It’s brilliant. I’m pretty sure it works with Outlook too, so you might want to give it a try. There’s a free version, but I upped it to a reasonable paid version that lets me schedule more replies.

    • ginidietrich

      @Shonali Yeah – I do that. I schedule all sorts of emails, especially when I’m on the road. But that doesn’t cut down on the sheer number I get every day. It’s really ridiculous.

      • PattiRoseKnight

        @ginidietrich@Shonali email gets out of control at AD that is for sure. If my inbox has over 200 emails I stop what I’m doing (as long as it’s not urgent) and clean out my inbox.

  • PattiRoseKnight

    I hate the reply to all feature. I rarely reply to all. If I did all Gini would do all day is delete emails.

    • ginidietrich

      @PattiRoseKnight Seriously. And I love the ones you take me off and the person puts me back on. People! I don’t need these emails.

  • My success has been addressing email as it comes in (quick reply, delete, and “star” for later) with the goal (daily) of Inbox Zero. So far so good. I can’t think when my Inbox has a lot of email. Some folks let it pile to 1,000’s. I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I am also beginning to think that folders are a waste of my time because I rarely (unless it’s a client email folder) go back in those folders. I’ve also had issues in the past where my computer died and I lost all my email. You know what? I never needed them later! So you live and you learn. But…that’s just me.

    • ginidietrich

      @abarcelos I’m like that too – not able to sleep with all those emails in my inbox. Where it really hurts me is when I’m on the road. They just pile up and I can’t do anything about them.

  • You do know that this is the kind of post that encourages me to email you throughout the day with all sorts of useful notes:

    “Dear Gini, I just wanted to see how long it would take you to respond.”

    “Dear Gini, can Jack Bauer come out and play?”

    “Dear Gini, I can’t find the salt, do you have any idea where I put it?”

    “Dear Gini, am I the only one emailing you like this?

    I used to be great about responding to every email I receive but now I have reached a point where there simply isn’t time to get to all of them. It is part of why I have multiple email boxes. It helps me organize them based on importance.

    • ginidietrich

      @TheJackB I see you here and on Facebook joking about sending me emails. It’s OK. I don’t feel badly about deleting your emails.

      • @ginidietrich That is why I sent them using a different name. 😉

        • ginidietrich

          @TheJackB I have to admit – that’s extremely entertaining.

  • This is a fascinating post for me. I am not in an industry that relies heavily on email and so I can’t even BEGIN to imagine having to spend 3 hours a day on just emails…I’d tear my hair out….So, at the risk of being made fun of, I have a question. In your industry, what did email replace? Did people spend 3+ hours on the phone? Did they spend 3+ hours typing letters? How did the out-of-control in-box get to this point? Do we need to redefine our definition of responsiveness? The stress factor that you and most of the commenters share seems overwhelming! Are we as customers that demanding and egocentric that we think our needs deserve to be taken care of immediately? Are we no longer patient? I apologize for the questions as opposed to a comment but I truly am perplexed. Three hours of email time seems so wasteful of your precious time. So, what DID your industry do before email? Or did email and our self serving impatience sort of evolve concomitantly? And, BTW….I truly had NO idea how much email flooded your inbox. I SO hope that I have never been a clogger. If anything was learned from this post, for me it was to be VERY cognizant of the time that I am now occupying in the reader’s day when I send an email and for me to be very respectful of that.

    • @SocialMediaDDS Patience is something that people have less of than they used to. My phone is an electronic leash. People expect to have immediate access and when they don’t they start to get crazy about it.It sounds silly, but response time has turned into a game because you have to train people to expect some lag time in your reply.

    • ginidietrich

      @SocialMediaDDS As long as I’ve been in the professional field, we’ve had email. So I have no idea what was done before. I would guess lots of phone calls and meetings. Which take more than three hours a day. So maybe I shouldn’t complain!

  • I know the feeling – I’ve got a bit of a system for managing my inbox, although it may not work for everyone. Weirdly enough, I posted it on my blog last night – you can find it at if you’re interested (not spamming!)Basically, I assign myself “Email Times” throughout the day and unless it’s vital, I don’t reply or read any mails outside those times (if it is really important, chances are a colleague will yell in my direction), pop the ones I’ve got to reply to into Wunderlist and tick them off as I go. It might not work for everyone, but it lets me stay productive throughout the day while still getting my emails taken care of.

    • ginidietrich

      @Ben Johnston So funny! I’ll go read your blog post about it. Great minds…

  • Leon

    G’Day Gini,

    Guess what? They’re only bloody letters or memos. Remember them? In those ancient hard copy days, you answered some immediately, you referred some to others, you sought others’ advice for some, you put some aside for a longer and deeper look , you even chucked some straight into the bin and, and, and………you even delegated some!

    And every time something new lobbed into your in- tray you didn’t drop everything else and read it.

    Email is demanding. But it’s worthwhile remembering that at least half the stuff we get is because we asked for it.

    Two little tips: at least every 3 months cull you list of incoming emails. Unsubscribe from those that you feel you don’t get value from any more—-for whatever reason. If that upset Marcus and Danny, blame the curmudgeon from Down Unda.

    Second, remember that email management is a time management issue. The Platinum Rule of time management, according to the CFDU is this; If you can’t delegate you can’t manage your time. The corollary to the Platinum Rule is: there’s no such thing as a manager who can’t delegate. There are only managers who wont. These days, they mostly blame emails.

    Y’know, sitting with my PC telling people what they really oughta be doing is great fun!

    Best Wishes


    • ginidietrich

      @Leon I don’t have an issue with managing my emails. I have an issue with the sheer number I receive. That’s why I like the one a day from each member of my team instead of 20 or 30 from each of them. The other thing I learned is when you unsubscribe to newsletters you never subscribed to, you’re added to other lists. It’s really awful. And spammy.

  • What a great opportunity to gripe about email ! I’m with you, I clear my email probably 3 times a day. All my working life I lived by the rule that emails have to be answered in 24 hours. So why doesn’t everybody else live by our rules ? Sheesh 🙂

    • ginidietrich

      @Glenn Ferrell Seriously. When we rule the world, Glenn.

      • @ginidietrich LOL! – I’ll leave “ruling the world” to you. You’re the photogenic one 🙂

        • ginidietrich

          @Glenn Ferrell Do you want a country? Speak now or forever hold your peace.

        • @ginidietrich I’ve always been fond of Glossolalia. Think it’s somewhere in the Carib. Set me up as governor and I’ll get you an offshore account there 🙂 (You can be my first honorary Glossolalian.)

        • ginidietrich

          @Glenn Ferrell DEAL!

  • I wish we could write a program that would magically delete the “reply all” option from the email system of every person I correspond with … ESPECIALLY the hockey dads on Connor’s team. I so wish they would keep their frat boy silliness to themselves! GEEZ!

    I keep on top of email too, and Dave is worse (although he gets far more than I do). He is like you, cant stand the drip, drip of emails for every little thing. He looses stuff that way. He wants you to condense as much as possible into a few a day (1 would be ideal for him, but probably not reality).

    I agree with @Glenn Ferrell 24 hr response time is a MUST!

    • ginidietrich

      @sydcon_mktg Can you get Dave on that? PLEASE??

  • gojohnab

    I only go into email a few times a day to help manage my time. I have too much of a pavlovian response to keep my inbox open and not respond to every flash window and ding. (yes I know you can turn those things off!) Most people know my approach and understand that email does not mean urgent to me. We have an internal IM system where co-workers can reach me and I use other chat’s for instant comms if needed…oh yeah and we have this other gadget a phone. Calling and coming into my office are still the “need it now” requests. Email is FYI, this needs review and/or attention for a response in my book, ideally in short order, but not immediate.

    The epidemic of CCmania (don’t get me started on the red exclamation virus) makes it hard to stay productive and on top of email and still be productive.

    One of the funniest things I ever heard from Peter Shankman was “email bankruptcy” and there are days where it is tempting! If not bankruptcy at least a reorganization of email debt:)

    • ginidietrich

      @gojohnab Be still my beating heart! First Facebook and now the blog? My entire year is made!

  • colinmorris

    You’re right about one thing: Email is a problem.

  • I, too, once had OCD inboxitis… But then I joined facebook and Twitter and started commenting on blogs. Now only have 4,238 (make that 4,240) unread messages in my social media fluff inbox. Sure, I’ve read most of the subject lines… But I’m sure there are at least a dozen or so messages that I’d probably regret not reading. My “solution” that I implemented a few weeks back is a new “important” email address that I only give to colleagues and people I may do business with. Since I’m not famous or high demand outside my day job, I’ve been able to read all 3 emails received there! Woot Woot!

    • ginidietrich

      @SociallyGenius You kill me! LOL! Maybe I’ll have a secret email address and not answer the Arment Dietrich emails. Think that would work?

      • @ginidietrich well, the trouble with that is you’ve already reached a level of fame and since it’s your work email, you’ll probably miss more than a recommended amount of important stuff. But hey, it works for me… So if you want 4,000+ neglected emails, you should give it a shot. Just don’t keep your secret email TOO much of a secret or then you’ll be bored 😉

  • This conversation is cracking me up! Think we can all agree that the reply all button must be banished to some place where the outdated programs go to die.

    Funny thing about this that I do schedule calls/return calls to certain times of day to stop the interruptions. Most people who work with me know this but I still get the occasional, ‘why do I always get your voice mail?’ Never thought about doing this for my emails … it would probably save me a couple of hours every day.

    • ginidietrich

      @penneyfox Reply all sucks! Isn’t it funny how we all hate it and yet it still gets used?

      I once saw a speaker who said, “The phone is there for your convenience, not for whomever wants to interrupt your day.” The same could be said for email.

  • geoffliving

    I, too, am zero in box. Had to clear everything out by Sunday night after vacation even. Cannot live with red alert flags on the email icon.

    • @geoffliving I’m with you and @ginidietrich . I’m totally OCD about reading through and clearing out email. It’s a blessing and a curse!

  • KyleAkerman

    I actually just started the process of organizing my gmail account yesterday. I’m still not anywhere near the goal of Inbox Zero, but I am regaining some control over new emails. Using filters, multiple inboxes and reviewing emails during set times each day definitely helps.

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