NYT Bestselling Author Brigid Schulte on How to Master Email

Another week, another inbox hero! Have you met Brigid Schulte before? Maybe you’ve read her book “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time” or seen it on the New York Times list of bestsellers? If you haven’t caught up with her yet, we should lead by saying that Brigid has dedicated a fair chunk of her career to researching behavior related to the way we work. Using her findings, she writes extremely eloquent (we’re not exaggerating!) prose and essays that bring to light humanity’s complicated relationship with time, stress and expectations. It’s no surprise that renowned media outlets like NBC News, Good Morning America, BBC World News have consulted Brigid’s opinion on all things productivity. Her work as a writer can be found in Time, The Guardian, the Atlantic and others. Needless to say, her varied professional experience and ongoing projects mean she gets hundreds of emails a day. In the following Inbox Heroes interview, she is sharing both her lessons learned and continuing struggles with her email inboxes.

How would you describe your relationship to email?

To be honest, email is still something I still struggle with. It drives me crazy! One has to think about why that is… I think it’s the same idea as with a physical mailbox that is overflowing. You can’t ignore it. It’s something you feel you have to deal with inevitably. Even if a lot of the email in your inbox is junk or the mail in your mailbox is spam, you still need to take some kind of action.

If you do ignore it, you could end up with tens of thousands of emails. Some people are OK with declaring email bankruptcy and just starting over, but I just couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t know if there was treasure among all of that garbage. For me, having all those unanswered emails in the inbox began to hang over my head  like psychic weight. It’s a real drag on your productivity. You carry your inbox in your mind, it takes up our limited cognitive bandwidth and, because we feel so guilty that we’re avoiding it or that we really should be tending to it,  it pollutes our experience of other daily things, including productive, concentrated work and free time for enjoying life.

How should we combat that? How did you master email?

I realized that what I had to do was:

  • create a system that worked for me
  • create space regularly in my calendar to deal with my emails

What I try to do is go through everything I need to by the end of a month. I realized that the reason my inbox kept piling up was that people would ask me for things and I just wouldn’t have the time to get to them all. It was more of an ask than I was able to deliver on. I felt badly saying no, so I would let the emails just sit there. It was not effective at all! Actually, it became a visual marker of my own procrastination. I had to take a step back and recognize that, even though I want to be helpful and answer everybody, I simply can’t do that if I want to still have the time to do what is important to me in my work and life.

I had to get better about saying “no” to things and refrain from answering in 5 pages what I could answer in several links to other resources.

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When should we prioritize answering emails over other activities?

Part of addressing your email is being clearer about what your own priorities are and what your own limitations are in terms of time and cognitive bandwidth. When we get too scattered or we feel we’re answering emails all the time just to keep from feeling like we’re drowning, we’re not doing anybody any good. Think of email as a process of giving and receiving. This is larger than just tips, tools and tricks. Before you use any of those, take some time to consider  – “what is your inbox for?” What’s really important to you – what’s your mission with your work? What’s most important about your connections with others? How does your time on email facilitate that?

Think of email as one of the systems that supports your goals. Recognize where your own bottlenecks are so you can create the best inbox for yourself.  

How many emails do you get in one day?

Great question! I have two inboxes – one for my work at the Better Life Lab at New America, and another for my personal connections and work as a speaker and author. I get hundreds a day in both of them. One of the things I try to do everyday is take time to manage my email. I try to answer quickly what I can. Schedule things on my calendar. And once I’ve taken action, I file them or delete them. I put that time  on the calendar, so that I am not always on email. I hate constantly checking my email, it’s a habit I’m trying to get out of because I see that is very addictive, and also really inefficient.

For my own sense of psychic ease, I try to keep both inboxes to one page. 

Do you consider email to be a channel for tasks and opportunities?

A lot of work gets done by and through email. I’ve tried to use different task systems and that has not been successful yet. In my team, we have a couple of project management systems we use. For example, we send emails to different Slack channels or Asana channels in order to track in both places. Although this helps in terms of capturing those tasks and processing emails so that they are not only in the inbox, it’s still a work in progress.

What do you think about having a workflow right in your email inbox?

That sounds pretty awesome! I like the idea of creating a seamless system that can track tasks and email work communications all in one place.

Could you tell us about your book, “Overwhelmed”? What’s the role of email?

Work, love and play are the three great arenas of life, and the foundations of The Good Life. To feel fulfilled, we need meaningful time and engagement in each arena. I think we have a love/hate relationship with email because we have a hard time making the best of it in each area of life. But, it’s actually a great tool to connect! It’s the equivalent of a letter, it’s more than a Facebook message, it’s more than a text…Email can enrich you in many areas of life. On the other hand, when you become overloaded, or too obsessive about checking it all the time, it can take you out of being in the moment at work, play and love.

Especially in work, we spend a lot of our day just managing email, so much so that we don’t have time to get to that period of concentrated work, which is the type of work we want to be doing and feel most fulfilled by.

Do you think we’ve yet to learn how to manage email?

The better we get at managing systems like email and recognize that they have replaced old legacy systems, like meetings (for example), then I think work will feel less frantic. The way we work is really inefficient because we have a clash of new and old, legacy systems. So, we’re trying to do it all. That’s where email is part of the problem. But clearly, communicating effectively is critical, so email and managing it well also needs to be part of the solution.

What are some of the best and worst email habits you’ve seen around you?

The worst habits are checking too much and not checking at all.

The best email habits are when you let your email be in service to what is important to you in your life, rather than feeling that you are a slave to your inbox.

What are the Six Ds to Master Email and why should everyone know them?

In my article in the Independent, “How to Clear Your Inbox: One Writer Reveals How She Went from 23, 768 Emails to None” I talk about Laura Stack’s (the “Productivity Pro”) rules to live by when it comes to the inbox. She refers to them as the Six Ds:

  1. Discard. Just delete stuff.
  2. Delegate. Decide if this is really something you need to do.
  3. Do it quickly – answer emails that will take two minutes or less right away.
  4. Date. Give yourself a deadline for taking action.
  5. Drawer. File away stuff you’ve taken action on, but may want to refer to.
  6. Deter. “Unsubscribe from things,” she said. “I am a freak about unsubscribing right away. You want to cut back on the things that come into the inbox in the first place. There’s so much volume. Prevention is key.”

Follow these 6 points and you can’t go wrong!

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Anything cool you’re working on right now and want to share?

Yes! We are actually working on a really interesting project in which we are studying work/life conflict, overwork and how they affect our health. We are looking at behavioral science to understand what might drive that and how to design solutions to the problem. One of the things we’re looking at in particular is email and the stress that comes from emails and sending them at all hours. For example, sending late night emails actually gives the impression that I am always working, even though I might have just come from a fun family evening, and just wanted to get something out of my  head. So, I may feel better, because I don’t need to worry that I’m going to forget sending this idea, I’ve now inadvertently created  the expectation that everyone on my team should be working or on call 24/7. Right now, my team and I are working on the Better Work Toolkit, a research project that looks at how to design systems to better handle email, meetings, flexibility, autonomy and collaboration to both make work more effective, and to create more room for work-life balance.

Learn more about Brigid Schulte and her projects

Brigid Schulte (@BrigidSchulte) has spoken all over the world about time, productivity, the causes and consequences of our unsustainable, always-on culture, and how to make time for Work, Love and Play – The Good Life – by rethinking how we work so that it’s effective, sustainable and fair, by re-imagining gender roles for a fairer division of labor and opportunity at work and home, by rewiring social policy, and instead of seeking status in busyness, by recapturing the value of leisure. She was an award-winning journalist for The Washington Post and The Washington Post Magazine and part of the team that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. She now serves as the founding director of The Good Life Initiative at the nonpartisan think tank, New America, and director of The Better Life Lab, both of which seek to elevate the conversation, explore transformative solutions and highlight how work-life and gender equity issues are key to excellence, productivity and innovation, as well as a full, authentic and meaningful life for everyone.