When Is It Enough?


I missed a day of work due to illness. One day of unplanned absence. I came back to 228 new emails. TWO HUNDRED TWENTY EIGHT. Please note – I am not a decision-maker at my work. I am quite firmly a middler. And I am quite certain that my situation is not unique, nor is it at the high end of the bell-curve.

What are we doing to ourselves? No one should be so in-demand as to receive over 200 emails in one day! Once I removed all the marketing & newsletter emails, I was still over 165 emails. And, what happens to those marketing and newsletters communications now? I don’t have to time to check into them. Into the trash they go. Many would have ended up there anyway, yes, but often I find important updates from associations I belong to or pertinent advancements in supports for my field. This time I will miss them. There isn’t time.

There isn’t time because four colleagues need insurance information and 7 need corporate card assistance and six have budget questions and 3 don’t know where to get needed information. Then there are the eight outside agencies with whom I am working who are awaiting updates or testing or data or confirmations. And what about the committees I serve on? Will they get updates soon? It doesn’t stop!

Some of the emails I get are, possibly, unnecessary. Simple questions that could be answered with a little research on their end. However, I often hear colleagues reach out to each other with an offer to help, rather than leave someone struggling to locate information on their own. So, how do you know when you should muddle through on your own for an answer – and for how long, and when you should not spend excess time on a query and immediately reach out to a colleague? It’s a guessing game. Murphy’s Law says you’ll guess incorrectly more often than not. Some people email to ask where to start their research – their version of a happy medium. Then they may email to confirm that what they found in their research is correct. And then the thank you emails (see my thoughts on that later in this post). It doesn’t stop.

We are electronically inundated with information and questions and requests and directions non-stop. And yet, we are expected to create competent output of some sort in the midst of all of this. How do you find balance? How do you feel productive and gain satisfaction with your contributions when they seem to be buried under so much electronic noise? It doesn’t stop.

We do this to ourselves. We went from a world of face-to-face meetings, to phone calls – because it’s quicker, to emails – to save time. We can be so much more productive, right? But, what are we giving up for the sake of saving time? In the span of 7 minutes I responded to 26 emails. Just under 4 emails each minute.  Great – I’ll get these 200 emails knocked out in no time. Right?

Sixteen seconds. That’s how long (on average) I spent on an email – reading, assessing and responding. I just told 26 colleagues they are not worth more than 16 seconds of my time. Wow. Because I felt the weight of 150 other emails looming over me, I missed the subtle plea for assistance from someone who was not fully trained by their predecessor in a software I manage. I answered the question, but I didn’t really help her. Because I watched three more emails come in while I typed, I submitted a duplicate request to an outside agency without bothering to see if it had been sent before. I got the information I needed but doubled someone else’s workload in the process. Because I still had a full plate of daily activities to tend to, I sent a group response to colleagues to address a wide array of issues that were emailed to me individually.  The response was brief and general and likely did not address all of their issues the way I should have.

We’re missing so much here. We’re checking boxes and typing over connections. We’re sorting our coworkers into categories of importance. We’re making broad-stroke filters where deep-dive education should occur. We’re hitting ‘reply all’ on life and hoping the one-size-fits-most answer will apply part of the time and get us through. We’re not reading for comprehension. We’re not valuing our own time or another’s by pushing through emails in 16 seconds. We deserve to take time to review details or assess needs. Our colleagues deserve understanding and explanation. We all deserve kindness – which I find is often sacrificed for the sake of expediency.

If you came here looking for the answers on how to be better in this issue, I’m sorry to say I don’t have them. I don’t know how to live more peacefully in a world pushed forward by electronic communications. There is so much good that comes from information being accessible in wide spread fashion. There is benefit to being able to send a message at any hour (before I forget!). It’s great that a unified message can be distributed to a broad range of people with one click. But I truly wish we could find a way to be less demanding of each other on a daily basis.

For my part, I am slowly educating my colleagues to reduce the unnecessary, response emails to me. That is – the “thank you” email. I am a big proponent of saying thank you in person and especially publicly. It’s important that we acknowledge and appreciate each other – out loud. However, unless I specifically ask for a response from you or go well beyond the scope of my work, please don’t send me a thank you email. It’s lovely, but please don’t.  You’ve come to me with this question because it is my job to manage these resources – my paycheck is my thank you. Now – if you feel my help was invaluable or that I went above what was expected of me, let me know – or better yet, let my boss know. But about 35% of my daily emails are “thank you” emails that only clog my inbox and are immediately deleted upon reading (and sometimes, not reading (sorry, not sorry)). Yes, I actually tracked this for a very short time. Without these well-meaning emails, I might have more than 16 seconds for the other responses. This is just me – other people may truly enjoy getting the confirmation of thanks. And, yes, I sometimes still send the ‘thank you’ email myself. Especially to those colleagues to whom it seems to matter more.

There’s more to life than emails. I’m trying to dig my way out, find my way through. Unanswered emails are one of the biggest stresses for me at work. After a day and a half of working my way through my inbox, I stand at 143 emails still to review. I no sooner address one, than another pops into my account. It’s challenging to work around this. It’s not a healthy work environment. And, it doesn’t stop.

Can we fix this? Can we stop the madness? Share your suggestions, voice your struggles, let us teach each other a better way! Maybe you can email me your thoughts. On second thought – maybe not.


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