Like any good member of the proletariat who wants nothing more than to serve capitalism, I am always looking for ways to be more productive at work. And one area where I have more than a lot of room for improvement is keeping up with email.
Look, I could be worse. I’m fairly organized — I use the tabbed Gmail inbox with a healthy number of colored labels and filters. At one point, I even maintained inbox zero, but those days are long gone. My problem is I still let emails slip through the cracks unanswered, occasionally causing problems. I recently searched my sent emails for the term “sorry” and found more than I wish to admit in which I said some version of “sorry for the late reply.”
What trips me up most is my habit of scanning my inbox, often on my phone, opening an email, reading it, and thinking, “I’ll reply to that later when I’m at my computer and/or not in the middle of this other project and can give a full reply.” Then I leave it marked as “read” and forget about it. I check my inbox constantly, but I only actually deal with my emails in a deliberate way during a few dedicated chunks of my day.
My email situation isn’t the worst. I’ve seen people with HORRIFYING numbers of unread emails. I typically only hover around 1,000, but it causes me stress and it’s not helping me do my best work. I would like to live my best life. I would like to live a life where I’m “good” at email and also shower every day and floss and stop biting my cuticles and am kinder to dogs. However, I know that I only have any hope of accomplishing the first item on that list.
My actual exposure to people who are extremely quick with email replies is somewhat limited. But my main inspo came from two unseemly places: the Sony email hack and the DNC leak that revealed Hillary Clinton’s emails. In the Sony hack, I was fascinated by executives like Amy Pascal’s quick, terse messages. How did people communicate like this?! I was agog.
Seeing Clinton’s emails was a whole new can of worms — quick emails to her staff, as well as longer, formal emails to other people. She had both a mastery of email and a complete bumbling lack of understanding of it. It was a hypnotic train wreck, and I wanted in. I want to be the kind of person who just replies with a single word, or forwards an email to my assistant to have them take care of it — how amazing would THAT be?
Look, I know: Having my takeaway about Hillary Clinton from the DNC email hack be “I’d like to emulate her email style” is supremely fucked up, but that’s where my priorities lie. I’m like a dumb dog who only cares about what’s in front of my face, and that isn’t who’s president. It’s what the red number on my mail app is.
Let’s call this “boss email.” It’s defined by nearly immediate — but short and terse — replies. The classic two-word email. For underlings, it can be inscrutable. Is that an angry “thanks” or a grateful “thanks”? Does “please update me” imply impatience with you? Boss email can be the workplace equivalent of getting a “k” text reply from a Tinder date.
One of the features of this is that it would feel wholly inappropriate for an underling to reply to their boss using the same fast terseness. So is the boss email also a power move, a way of asserting dominance? I doubt many bosses sit staring at their employees’ emails trying to figure out what “ok” really meant.
Ben Smith, the boss here at BuzzFeed News, has a very specific boss email style that we here have gotten used to. He’s a practitioner of the classic put-the-whole-email-in-the-subject-line method. This is often just a few words, with maybe just a word or two in the body of the email.
I emailed Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and star of TV’s Shark Tank, because he is known for responding right away to anyone who emails him, and because now I can give this story the headline, “Mark Cuban’s Advice About Email” for LinkedIn. I wanted to know, did you always email this way, or did you only start once you became the boss? His answer (over email): “Yes.” I’m going to assume the yes was to the first part of the question and he skimmed over part two.
He also says he doesn’t worry about coming off as rude. Of all the things I envy Mark Cuban for — his millions, getting to hang with sports players — not worrying about being rude over email is probably the thing I envy most. Imagine being so free from social anxiety! Good lord.
On a Monday morning, I began my experiment. I opened my email, deleted a few purely mailing list items, and got to work. For all the PR pitches I wasn’t interested in, I fired off a quick, “Thanks, but this is a pass for me.” It felt empowering.
My new, useful quick reply:
The week before the experiment, I sent 21 emails total.
The week I started the experiment, I sent 84. (To be fair, about 25 of those were replies to people who emailed me specifically after I tweeted out that I was doing this experiment. I got a bunch of jokey emails, which I dutifully replied to.)
The other key part of boss-style email is doing a lot of email on the phone. This meant goodbye to my old crutch of “I’ll reply when I get to a computer.” I would fire off emails from my phone on the subway, walking around at lunch, on the toilet at the office. For the first time, I actually started using the suggested Gmail replies, which are actually pretty useful in the sense of purely transmitting information.
That first Monday, as I fired off a bunch of not-super-important emails, something strange happened. I felt…extremely good. I was high on the fumes of efficiency. No longer did a little cloud hang over me, the nagging feeling you get when you know you’re supposed to do something and can’t remember what.
The high didn’t wear off after that first day. It lasted all week. I applied the method to my personal email as well, and although I don’t get as many personal emails, I found it worked even better there. Personal emails are more likely to be the kind that need a longer response, and you feel even worse guilt for delaying a response. An email from a college friend’s cousin about career advice? I replied immediately and didn’t have to worry about it. Done! On to the next thing!
For that whole week, I felt extremely productive at work. And I was! I ended up publishing more articles than usual. There was an extra, unexpected effect — I felt less like I needed to check my email in the evening after work. Previously, at night I’d often catch up on email, especially personal emails that I had put off during the workday. No more! At night I was able to relax and watch Stranger Things without being glued to my phone. I even started going to the gym more regularly! I am literally not joking when I say that I think it made me a better person!
Although I was delighted that my work-life balance had improved, this did not fit well with my “email like a CEO” plan. The boss does not turn off her phone at 8 p.m.! No! One of the key factors of boss email is 24-hour vigilance. Well, thankfully I just don’t get THAT much important email late at night. No matter how I email, I’m still not actually, ya know, a CEO.
But for the next two weeks, the high didn’t go away. I made sure I had taken care of all important, recent emails, then hit “mark all as read,” and inbox zeroed myself — a status I lost the ability to keep a few years ago. It felt great.
Here’s what I learned: Of all the types of technology that make us feel bad, there’s been a lot of focus on social media — Twitter blasting you with bad news, Facebook or Instagram giving you a warped sense of envy. Email has always sucked, but it's gotten a free pass in our recent examinations of our digital anxiety. Email is a given, it’s old, it’s a thing you need, not a thing you choose. Complaining about email is like a Jay Leno bit from 2002. Perhaps that’s why you fall into a rut with it; you’re not thinking about it too much.
From now on, I am my own CEO and I am the boss of my inbox. I am going to keep this up.
My friends, allow me to recommend you give it a try. It has made me unspeakably happy to not stress as about emails anymore by being slightly impolite and quick in my replies. I encourage you all to try it. And if not, feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org), “thanks, that’s a pass for me.”