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Doing Battle With Your Email Inbox

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Ding! We all know the sound of a new message. Doing battle with your email inbox is a nearly universal experience among professionals. Here’s how to get ahead.

I’ve been teaching classes about email management for years, and it’s a topic which seems to never get old. I think the reason it’s so popular is because email is so terrifying. We get more messages today than we ever have, and thanks to smartphone technology they have the ability to follow us to bed, to the beach, and even to the bathroom!

Battle for Email on Smartphones

© Flickr user highwaysagency

Email is getting worse all of the time, and our strategies for dealing with it are hopelessly out of date. So to bring something in from completely out of left field, I’m going to talk about Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, an army commander who served for nearly seventy years and totally changed the theory of warfare.

Moltke came to four essential conclusions about the nature of battle:

  • While on the march and being supplied an army needs to be separated to smaller corps, which can then be combined for battle.
  • The current size of armies makes precise command and control impossible, so subordinates need to be empowered to make decisions
  • You cannot plan with certainty beyond your first fight with the enemy’s main strength
  • Strategy is not about direct commands, but about working out a system of options

What does all that mean and what does it have to do with email? Consider Moltke’s statements this way:

  • Outside of email, information needs to be managed separately, and then combined for email.
  • The current volume of email means you can’t do everything, so you need to share the work with others.
  • No email interaction can be planned beyond the first message.
  • Email is not about giving others directions, but having a strategy for how to engage with others.

Think about that while you check out this old political cartoon/map of Prussia (where Helmuth von Moltke the Elder spent much of his time.)

Map of Prussia

© Flickr user normanbleventhalmapcenter

The reality is that the way we think about email is completely wrong. Just as Moltke revolutionized warfare by thinking about the size of armies and about the reality of unexpected outcomes, we also need to revolutionize the battle with our email inboxes by accepting that they are too large to manage without a strategy, and that our strategy must be flexible.

Features are Deceptive

A key reason why we continue to struggle with email is that many of the new enhancements designed to improve our lives actually have the opposite effect. These features seem like they are helping but just encourage bad habits, so they don’t really solve anything.

One example is the rise of search. Since modern computers are blazingly fast, we can sift through tens of thousands of email in seconds. As a result, we get lazy about managing information because we know—or rather we think—that we can just find it later.

The problem also applies to more complex features. I wrote an extended rant about Google’s Priority Inbox, which tries to hide email instead of letting you manage it on your own.

Access is Too Universal

Email used to be something you checked perhaps once a day, when you made it over to the computer lab on campus or used your computer to dial-up to the Internet. Today, we are looking at email constantly, and it’s on our tablets, smartphones, and laptops.

This means we can’t treat email like regular mail. We can’t ignore it until a fresh batch arrives, because the letter carrier is always there, knocking at the door. So we don’t deal with email like correspondence, we deal with it as if it is rising floodwater pouring into our houses.

New Perspective Needed

There’s got to be a better way to manage email. That’s the topic of my book, The Battle For Your Email Inbox. Order it today from The Efficient Professional Store.

Good luck doing battle with your inbox. Just remember what Helmuth von Moltke the Elder said: “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@lorraineball First probably depends on the business. But second is likely training, especially with regard to sales. - 18 hours ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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