When I was working, I averaged about 200 actionable emails every single day. That’s after filtering out all mailing lists, spam, and announcements. That’s about one email every 7 minutes, which meant it was a challenge to keep up. It’s notable that my voicemails and text messages got sent to email, so in a sense email was the only way for anyone to reach me unless they were in shouting distance.

I had a complex system for managing emails. In a nutshell, I had badging notifications so I could see how many unseen emails I had waiting. When I had a moment for email (between patients or when I was waiting for something) I could, at a glance, see if there were any messages I had not yet seen. (Spoiler: there always were.) I would quickly go through all the unseen messages and triage thusly:

  • If it was an emergency, defined as someone imminently facing death or serious injury that I might be able to mitigate, I dealt with it on the spot.
  • If it was something that argued for “immediate” attention, I would leave it in the inbox to deal with as soon as there were no more unseen messages.
  • If it was something that was best dealt with when I was elsewhere (work messages when I was at home or vice-versa) then they went in a mailbox to be dealt with when I was in the appropriate location.
  • If a message was going to require significant time, I could choose to procrastinate to my next break or until I was home or even until the weekend.

There were always emails waiting, whether unseen or “immediate” or procrastinated. Sometimes, when I had a day off and the children were at school or with friends, I could focus on just taking care of procrastinated emails. Even then, though, there would still be the usual emails piling up, plus the act of answering emails often elicited even more replies. I didn’t “finish” email more than a handful of times during the decade-plus that I ran my own business.

Now that I’ve been retired for over two years, the rate of incoming mail has slowly dwindled. I’m now down to about 80 daily emails, and they’re never emergencies and rarely even demand immediate attention. I can often — multiple times a day! — completely empty my inbox. I hadn’t realized what a toll the constant background of unaddressed emails was taking. I recently even turned off badging for unseen mail, and it has made it so much easier to code and write without being confronted by an interruption that is almost certainly not critical.

—2p

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