A few years ago, I heard Charles Duhigg — a New York Times reporter and the author of multiple books on productivity — say he judges his performance at work by his email activity. Specifically, the fewer emails he sends, the more effectively he must have been working.
For me, Duhigg’s admission was nothing short of a revelation. For years, I’d been struggling to manage my work inbox — to say nothing of my personal inbox — so that I didn’t wind up provoking the ire of publicists or sources or coworkers eagerly awaiting my response. Apparently, it was more or less ok to leave them hanging.
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Then I read Adam Grant’s op-ed in The New York Times. Grant, a Wharton professor and organizational psychologist, argues that there’s a link between how you handle email and how successful you are professionally, citing a Microsoft study that found the least effective managers were also the slowest to respond to emails.
Plus, Grant says, it’s downright rude to ignore all your emails. His rejoinder to folks who insist that their inbox is “other people’s priorities”: “Your priorities should include other people and their priorities.”
I’ve emailed Grant a few times asking him to chat about a story I’m working on. He’s responded every time — declining the interview, but still providing some helpful bit of information. Indeed, in The Times article, Grant recommends letting people know when you can’t help them out by saying, for example, “I don’t have the bandwidth to add this.”
This morning, keeping Grant’s admonition in mind, I sent a long-overdue email to a publicist, with profuse apologies. Yes, I felt some digital weight lifted off my shoulders. But I also felt some remorse: This woman had been following up with me so she could check a task off her to-do list and look better to her boss, and I’d been preventing her from doing that.
You don’t have to respond to every single email you receive
Then again, as Grant readily acknowledges, you don’t have to respond to every email you receive. On his “no” list: strangers asking you to share their content on social media or to introduce you to some fancy people in your network.
Remember, too: Just because you miss an email (or two) doesn’t mean you’re an unsuccessful person or that something terrible is going to befall you. As Laura Vanderkam writes in her time-management book “I Know How She Does It“: “Better to realize that anything you haven’t gotten to after a week or so will have either gone away or been thrust back upon you by follow-up messages or calls. You can probably stop thinking about it. Earth will not crash into the sun.”
I suppose the takeaway here is about shifting your mindset. Spending an hour or so every day addressing thoughtful emails with thoughtful responses isn’t necessarily a waste of time. You might not win any awards for being the most responsive emailer of all time; but at the very least, you’ll show some respect for people who used time and energy to write to you.