Thinking about perception when responding to email

I know it has become fashionable to complain about email – “too many emails,” “I’m not able to focus,” etc. I, however, am yet to find a more useful communication tool for folks working in the connection economy. Until then, I’ll continue to love email and be thankful that it exists.

Email management is a skill I’ve consciously sought to learn over time. I’ve learnt that I like keeping an empty inbox. The big difference it has made in the past few years is that I stopped viewing my inbox as my to do list. Clearing email was a chore and I did whatever was in my inbox. Inbox zero changes the dynamic. Now, I own my task list and priorities and email just becomes a way to connect, communicate, and coordinate.

The inbox zero approach follows a simple logic –
1. If an email can be responded quickly (~2 mins), do it now.
2. If it takes longer, leave it in.
3. If it is not for you, re-direct.
4. If it is information necessary for others, forward.
5. If it signals a longer task that requires thinking, file into a “work-in-progress” folder and make sure it gets on your task list

This flow becomes so natural that you don’t stop to think about it. I have, however, realized that there used to be a limiting factor that stopped me from achieving this flow – it was the fear of perception. When I saw email coming in, I would wonder if I should respond because of variants of a question – “What would these people think – would they  think I had nothing useful to do except sit in front of my email?”

So, I’d wait – till I could assuage these doubts over perception.

Over time, I realized this was a pathetic waste of time. Most people don’t care. And, if you find people spending their time judging you instead of doing their work, I’d stay away from them. The beauty about getting into a flow with email is that you don’t waste any unnecessary time. Clearing email stops being a battle. It is just part of the flow. Sometimes, part of the flow is also acknowledging you won’t be able to do justice to every email and that you’ll make mistakes.

That’s okay. Like all things, this is all about process. Make peace with the process and enjoy it. That’s generally a sign that a thing will be done well.

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