I was sipping coffee, enjoying my weekend when my phone buzzed and a serious sounding woman began to talk. She was calling from the college I had graduated ages ago, and it turned out they’d been notifying me several times about collecting my marksheets. They’d sent quite a few emails, she said testily. So how had I missed them?
Then realisation struck. I’d switched to a new email address a while ago, dealing with every new message swiftly, but had forgotten all about the old one – what was the password again? I finally accessed that old inbox; it opened to show a dreadful 17,864 unread mails – notifications, newsletters, and correspondence that was actually important. How was I ever going to deal with this?
For many people, having even a few unopened emails, texts and social-media chats is cause for distress. They’ll view any unattended notification with the kind of horror usually reserved for ticking time bombs. Others will happily let their inboxes pile up, never losing sleep over missing an emergency note, a last-minute change of plan, or a "Chance to Win The British Lottery". Which side is doing it right?
Get through it
Yash Kadakia, who owns the Web security firm, Security Brigade, has seen both sides of the situation. He once had 15,000 unread mails in his inbox, and as more new messages flew in, he started having trouble with clients and colleagues, even losing money in his business. Something had to be done. Kadakia rolled up his sleeves, and worked his way through every mail. It took him two years to address them all but he finally did it. And business is better.
Amrita Chowdhry, author and former India head of publishing house Harlequin, says that while being responsive is important, it’s frankly impossible to tackle every last email in today’s world. "They require a lot of your time," she says. "I have to check my mail eight to 10 times a day."
Her solution: to sort each mail according to priority, replying immediately to the urgent ones, saving the less-urgent ones for later in the day, and as for the ones she doesn’t care about? "I don’t respond at all," Chowdhry admits. Kadakia sorts his incoming mail according to subject, so if a critical mail goes unread, it’s not buried and forgotten. "It takes up most of my day. But then again, there’s no other way out," he says.
So what can you ignore?
This is after all an age of WhatsApp groups, Twitter lists, send-to-all SMS, Facebook shares and endless CCs on emails. Shirin Mehrotra, whose job at the website Burrp! has resulted in 900 daily unread mails and a never-ending barrage of promotional material about new restaurants and food festivals, has a simple system.
“Honestly, if the subject line isn’t interesting enough, I delete the mail without reading it,” she says. If much of your clutter is from mass mailers too, go straight to the source. Chowdhry says she was once so “fed up of those stupid email listings” that she replied to the senders saying “I don’t want to be on your mailing list! Just don’t send me any of these from now on!” Has she missed out on anything important? She says she doesn’t really care.
And what can you get away with?
We know one colleague who has 2,866 unread emails and is unfazed by the number. She doesn’t answer emails on leave, and when she returns, sees no point reading what she can’t do anything about. She believes that if something is really important, it will be brought to your notice anyway, and the repercussions of ignoring your inbox are hardly tragic.
She recalls an instance when she was completely at sea about a conversation her teammates were having: “I had no clue of what was going on. They asked me, ‘Didn’t you check your mail?’ I just did a quick Gmail search and figured it out.”
Clutter isn't a real mess:
“Today, when someone asks me what I do, I say my job is to respond to emails,” Kadakia says only half-joking. “I don’t know how people function with a messy mailbox. It’s ridiculous!” he adds. At 2,000 unread emails Mehrotra’s personal email is more cluttered than her work account, but she doesn’t care; dealing with work emails is tiresome enough – they take up her morning commute.
“After work too, when I finally get some family time, I’m constantly checking my mail and getting notifications. I just feel like shutting my inbox and forgetting about everything,” she says.
And if you really think about it: which is more problematic? Ignoring your inbox to have a life or missing out on life just to keep your inbox clean?
From HT Brunch, August 23
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