Catching Up Unread Messages

Everyone dreams about Inbox Zero, but the reality is cruel. I couldn’t stand the ever-increasing number of my unread messages, so I did a very simple math.
First off, the following list summarizes the average number of incoming messages for each day of week.

  • Sat+Sun+Mon: 90 msgs/day
  • Tue: 110 msgs/day
  • Wed: 115 msgs/day
  • Thu: 180 msgs/day
  • Fri: 100 msgs/day (somewhat large deviation)

One interesting property of this data is that the beginning of a week looks like Tuesday. It’s because most employees are distributed in North America and Europe while I live in South Korea, which is a minor time zone.
I subscribed to 169 blogs, and that is about 40 new posts per day.
Currently, I have 1850 unread messages and 483 unread blog posts. (Depressed) After the simplistic math, now I can at least guess how many messages and blog posts I have to read to improve the current situation.
However, there are so many things to figure out. How many hours should I spend for reading e-mails and blogs? Should I spend my whole day for catching up the incoming messages on Thursday, where 180 messages come from? Is this a large amount or not considering that I am a remote worker of a global company?
I vaguely guess this issue might be because I am still not used to multi time zone collaboration via e-mail.
Unlike instant messaging and offline conversations, e-mail does not require immediate attention. Because of this property, e-mail decreases the cost of context switching while it increases the size of the backlog. Although the cost of context switching is known to be a major cause of poor productivity, the psychological pressure of the increasing backlog shouldn’t be ignored. The famous GTD book dedicates its whole pages about the backlog problem.
What makes the backlog problem worse is working in a minor time zone. If you get up in the morning, it’s usual to see about 100 messages which were sent overnight. As the backlog gets longer, it costs more effort to catch up the discussion. Moreover, you often end up with just ‘catching up’ rather than ‘actively participating’ because it’s too late. It sometimes makes a depressed start of a day.
How should I overcome this? I can’t think of a good solution. I am already busy enough with merely catching up. It’s time to deal with it actively instead of leaning on vague optimism.

2 Comments Catching Up Unread Messages

  1. Julius Davies

    You could abandon email (maybe with some extreme white-listing of 10 – 15 super-high-urgency “From:” rules).

    I never feel bad for not reading email. If something is important enough, people will try other channels.

  2. Dominique Broeglin

    You could try out this method:

    By the way the guy has a lot of other useful tips for improving ones organization.

    I would add this little tip: when working at my backlog I make a point of treating every mail in the same order it came into my Inbox. With one exception: I configure my mail app to organize by thread so I can quickly scan a whole discussion and not answer emails that where already answered. A useful side effect is that usually by the time I read the thread someone has already answered the initial topic 😉

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