Before You Declare Email Bankruptcy…

Did you ever wish you could delete all your email without responding? Maybe you can. It’s called email bankruptcy. You realize you are never going to dig yourself out from under the pile of email in your inbox so you just declare that you won’t. You start afresh.

VC Fred Wilson and Teqlo CEO Jeff Nolan have joined the ranks of the email bankrupt this week, but it isn’t an entirely new concept. Lawrence Lessig coined the term in 2004:

In a script-driven note sent out last week, Lessig wrote: “Dear person who sent me a yet-unanswered e-mail, I apologize, but I am declaring e-mail bankruptcy.”

He went on to note that he had spent 80 hours the prior week sorting through unanswered e-mail built up since January 2002, and had determined that “without extraordinary effort” he would simply never be able to respond to these messages.

If you find email bankruptcy too drastic, here are some other tactics to try first:

Just don’t answer your email. You don’t need to tell everyone you’re doing it. Delete the messages in your inbox and make yourself available in other ways: on IM, by phone, in person even. People who want to find you will. The world will proceed without your email responses.

The benefit of declaring your bankruptcy is that you feel psychologically free to proceed with deleting the email. But your email responses may not be as important as you think. I doubt people who sent Larry Lessig emails in January 2002 were expecting responses in 2004. Face it: for the most part, people aren’t sitting around waiting for your replies.

Delay answering. Create a folder or label named with a date in the future, maybe a week or so, or two days if that’s the most you can stand. Move everything from your inbox into there. On that day, look at the messages. Do you need to respond to them now? Many of them no longer require a response, having been already dealt with or made obsolete by intervening events.

I use a “pending” label to achieve something akin to this. When my email overwhelms me, I take all the ones I think I need to do something about and I mark them with the label pending, then archive them so they’re out of the inbox. You could as easily do it with a pending folder if you use Outlook or Apple’s I check the pending messages when I remember, not on any sort of schedule. By the time I remember, many of the emails no longer need a response.

Would David Allen approve? No way. This isn’t about mind like water — it’s about the muddiness of real life.

Use an email auto-responder that directs people to other channels. It’s a bit presumptuous to auto-reply with a long-winded description of your personal scheduling problems and proposed solution. If you’re going to impose on your email correspondents with a reply like this, keep it short.

I like this one I received recently:

Due to a technical issue, there is a possibility I may never see your email. If it is important, please call me at xxx xxx-xxxx.

Sorry for any inconvenience.

Just get that phrase “there is a possibility I may never see your email” into your auto-response and senders will try to find you in some other way… if they really need to. You can wrap around it any excuse you like: your overscheduled life, web-induced attention deficit disorder, or the vagaries of spam filters.

Maybe the most existentialist among us would just leave it at “there is a chance I may never see your email” and isn’t that the truth. Who knows what family emergency, email downtime, or other untoward event might come between sender and receiver.

Think of email as a river, not a pond. The beauty of Twitter is being able to dip into it any time and ignoring what came before and what comes after when you’re not paying attention. You could treat your email the same way — eliminating all messages older than a certain date. Try it this way: allocate an hour to deal with email. Start from the most recent and work backwards. When your time’s up, delete the rest of the email.

This is all rather drastic, isn’t it? But if you’re contemplating email bankruptcy, you probably need something radical.