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Before You Declare Email Bankruptcy…

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Did you ever wish you could delete all your email without responding? Maybe you can. It’s called email bankruptcy. You realize you are never going to dig yourself out from under the pile of email in your inbox so you just declare that you won’t. You start afresh.

VC Fred Wilson and Teqlo CEO Jeff Nolan have joined the ranks of the email bankrupt this week, but it isn’t an entirely new concept. Lawrence Lessig coined the term in 2004:

In a script-driven note sent out last week, Lessig wrote: “Dear person who sent me a yet-unanswered e-mail, I apologize, but I am declaring e-mail bankruptcy.”

He went on to note that he had spent 80 hours the prior week sorting through unanswered e-mail built up since January 2002, and had determined that “without extraordinary effort” he would simply never be able to respond to these messages.

If you find email bankruptcy too drastic, here are some other tactics to try first:

Just don’t answer your email. You don’t need to tell everyone you’re doing it. Delete the messages in your inbox and make yourself available in other ways: on IM, by phone, in person even. People who want to find you will. The world will proceed without your email responses.

The benefit of declaring your bankruptcy is that you feel psychologically free to proceed with deleting the email. But your email responses may not be as important as you think. I doubt people who sent Larry Lessig emails in January 2002 were expecting responses in 2004. Face it: for the most part, people aren’t sitting around waiting for your replies.

Delay answering. Create a folder or label named with a date in the future, maybe a week or so, or two days if that’s the most you can stand. Move everything from your inbox into there. On that day, look at the messages. Do you need to respond to them now? Many of them no longer require a response, having been already dealt with or made obsolete by intervening events.

I use a “pending” label to achieve something akin to this. When my email overwhelms me, I take all the ones I think I need to do something about and I mark them with the label pending, then archive them so they’re out of the inbox. You could as easily do it with a pending folder if you use Outlook or Apple’s I check the pending messages when I remember, not on any sort of schedule. By the time I remember, many of the emails no longer need a response.

Would David Allen approve? No way. This isn’t about mind like water — it’s about the muddiness of real life.

Use an email auto-responder that directs people to other channels. It’s a bit presumptuous to auto-reply with a long-winded description of your personal scheduling problems and proposed solution. If you’re going to impose on your email correspondents with a reply like this, keep it short.

I like this one I received recently:

Due to a technical issue, there is a possibility I may never see your email. If it is important, please call me at xxx xxx-xxxx.

Sorry for any inconvenience.

Just get that phrase “there is a possibility I may never see your email” into your auto-response and senders will try to find you in some other way… if they really need to. You can wrap around it any excuse you like: your overscheduled life, web-induced attention deficit disorder, or the vagaries of spam filters.

Maybe the most existentialist among us would just leave it at “there is a chance I may never see your email” and isn’t that the truth. Who knows what family emergency, email downtime, or other untoward event might come between sender and receiver.

Think of email as a river, not a pond. The beauty of Twitter is being able to dip into it any time and ignoring what came before and what comes after when you’re not paying attention. You could treat your email the same way — eliminating all messages older than a certain date. Try it this way: allocate an hour to deal with email. Start from the most recent and work backwards. When your time’s up, delete the rest of the email.

This is all rather drastic, isn’t it? But if you’re contemplating email bankruptcy, you probably need something radical.

32 Responses to “Before You Declare Email Bankruptcy…”

  1. Aussie Computer Expert Solves Email Bankruptcy by using German Engineering.

    Several large companies including a telco/internet provider and a world leading Software manufacturer are now exploring whether to release Jurgen’s Ebook to their customers to halt the email information overload.

    The product concept for Master Your Inbox was created out of the understanding that the vast majority of the people at the workplace are getting more emails than they can handle. In some respects Outlook® is the most neglected software on the planet, because nobody invests the time to learn it properly.

    The result is that the people are frustrated, permanently distracted by email and literally held hostage by their inbox – or they declare Email Bankruptcy.

    Due to the fact that everybody lacks the time of reading a convoluted book on this topic or going to a training course, this new e-book brings the knowledge to the user – with simple and clever chunk size tips.

    With this e-book you receive over 60 proven expert tips to be more productive and effective with Outlook® email. It is like having your own personal assistant sitting beside you filing away your emails, as they come in.

    This e-book from ComputerMaster® is available in English and German.

    Give yourself a top day

  2. One way to avoid email bankruptcy I found, is to audit the e-mail subscriptions that I receive. If the e-mail subscriptions have an RSS feed option, I unsubscribe from the e-mail edition and opt-in to the feed edition. I can easy scan the feed titles and click on the want to read, instead of opening and closing e-mails.

  3. To me, e-mail bankruptcy is worse than financial bankruptcy. While some people that declare financial bankruptcy are lazy and just want to get out of paying their bills, most are there because of unforseen medical bills or events out of their control.

    You CAN take control of your inbox. E-mail bankruptcy is rude. It’s wrong. And it’s indicative of what’s wrong with business and society today.

    Whatever happened to personal accountability? If you were in my company we’d fire you for failing to respond to your co-workers, clients, vendors, whomever. Not responding has ramifications. You are the poison in the clubhouse that’s holding everyone up. Indeed, some people ARE sitting around waiting to hear from you. You know, the people that are working their buts off doing most of the work? Forcing them to hunt you down is totally inconsiderate.

    Using your autoresponder to lie? Nice.

    Come on, people. You can do better.

    Instead, why don’t you just change your e-mail address and let the people who REALLY need to know know. If the others need you, they will find you.

    Or, find a group messaging solutions that moves project-related messages out of your inbox and into an RSS feeder.

    Quit subscribing to e-zines you don’t have time to read.

    Set guidelines in your company regarding e-mail etiquette like, “Don’t waste people’s time by sending responses to messages — “Thanks.” “Got it.”

    Use rules in your e-mail client to have some message types moved to folders.

    You don’t have to be inconsiderate with your e-mail, just smarter.

  4. At my previous job, my email inbox got bloated to the point I didn’t know what to do about it anymore. I literally got stomach pain just from looking at it and wondering if I had missed something important. Since I started my new job, I’ve done pretty well with keeping things organized and sorting correspondence into folders by topic. I need to have an email trail because folks around here like to point fingers and I need to CMA. But once a project is done, I usually delete all emails that were generated during the proces, and only keep ones that reference important decisions or anything I think I might need to CMA.

  5. In Thunderbird, I would set an folder with a “delete when message is X days old” expiry on it. If it doesn’t exist, do you have to reply to it? If you haven’t replied to it for that long, chances are the sender has forgotten about it. Check out my post here

  6. Hi
    great post
    i constantly find myself overwhelmed by email, especially at work where i can receive anything upto 500+ mails a day, the reading of which as you can imagine is impossible, although i dont my boss will be impressed at a email bankruptcy response !
    might be fun to try though



  7. I just declared “email bankruptcy”, in a way, by switching over to Gmail and not bothering to import any of my old email from Outlook. And it worked wonders!

    My Outlook was so bloated full of emails that it took nearly two minutes to load and check for new messages (though to be fair, I think I can attribute some of this to Outlook just not handling a large volume of email all that well – even when it’s archived.

    Those problems, coupled with the fact that I was tired of trying to make SMTP work as my means of accessing email anywhere, AND that I discovered an easy way to access GMail on my Verizon phone, convinced me to make the switch. Oh, and the fact that I could actually access my own domain’s email via GMail (though the whole “Sent by” field that appears in emails I send isn’t all that great).

    Anyway, this forced bankruptcy has really helped me refocus how I approach email. Instead of treating my inbox as storage, I’m using it as an actual inbox of items which need addressing. Not only does this make me more organized, but I’ve also found it helps a lot with making sure I take care of tasks that need taking care of.

    However, should I ever need it, I do have Outlook still installed with all my old email. Though in the past few weeks, I’m surprised that I haven’t had to load it up more than once to look up an email. My advice is give email bankruptcy a try if you are feeling overwhelmed, but make sure you have a backup!

  8. I am a fan of email bankruptcy – it jives too well with the main goal – Getting Things Done! Who needs the clutter of an Inbox full of 5,000+ messages and the subliminal stress in the background – asking yourself if there’s something important there and that someday you’ll have to answer all of these people. Email bankruptcy is a good one-time fix.

    It’s also important to put in place a strategy so you don’t get such a backlog anymore. I use Outlook quite frequently (there are probably similar options in other programs) and I have the AutoArchive feature set to automatically delete my messages after they turn 1 month old – if I haven’t responded by then or moved it into another place, the chances of me getting to it are slim (I set Saved Messages and Sent Items to 3 months since they are not usually worth much by then and just take up precious disk space). Just another thought about how to stay on top of the email madness!

  9. Dear Anne,

    These are great tips! As an innocent, I started my first email box in about 1997 (and I still have it). I no longer visit it often as I’ve sent friends and family elsewhere to “more sophisticated”, “larger” boxes.

    I have added 6 more email boxes, over, 3 additional services since then. You get the idea!

    I think email is very insidious and beguiling clutter — I am “always” going to “get back to this”, and I rarely do.

    I did delete a few hundred messages form 2 of the boxes a couple of times, and it felt good. I am thinking of “unsubscribing” from about 90% of the people I get soliticitative business email from. I think they have been abusing the privilege, more and more, over time.

    So, your article has given me some “tools” to use to re-organize what will be left, and maybe I can have better use of what is still a decent means of communication. Spam filters can’t get rid of all the junk. I have to have quality mail from the business people I deal with online, and as I am deeply into Internet Marketing (in order to learn), I am being deluged.

    I will set myself a limit of about a dozen people I want to receive mail from and cull the rest.

    Thanks for giving me hope and techniques. Hopefully, I won’t get overloaded after the change-over. Then I’ll have lots more time for my life and my blog, without guilt. I can look forward that my research time for my articles will not be taken up by worthless email reading!

    Come visit me at
    “Everyone knows someone who needs this information!” (TM)
    Use it for Sharing or for Prevention.

    Best Regards,