How old is the oldest email sitting in your inbox?
If that question makes you a little uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Most of us have an email or two (or ten) that we probably should have responded to, but never got around to it.
The problem is, what if too much time has gone by? Should you just slink off into the shadows, delete the message, and pretend the email never existed? Let it sit in your inbox, making you feel guilty every time you see it? Suck it up and respond, apologizing profusely?
None of those options are especially pleasant.
Enter “Email Debt Forgiveness Day.”
What is Email Debt Forgiveness Day?
So, let’s start with how this all came about.
Basically, the folks at Gimlet Media behind the Reply All podcast (and before that, the StartUp Podcast) created their own “holiday”—a day where we can all reply to the emails we should have replied to sooner, but didn’t (and now feel embarrassed about).
On Email Debt Forgiveness Day, you can reply to any email that has been sitting around too long in your inbox making you feel guilty. No apologies, explanations, or other reasoning for its lateness needed.
It’s both an aid in the pursuit of inbox zero, and a way to ease anxiety and take a load off your mind.
Why do we need to forgive email “debt”?
The proclamation of this holiday is a tongue in cheek way of addressing a real issue: We often get so buried under emails that we have trouble sifting through all of them, and when things go unanswered too long, it can be a huge source of stress.
As we discussed recently here on the Outpost blog, the volume of email we touch is huge. On average, we send and receive around 128.8 billion emails a day.
With such an overload of emails on a daily basis, there are likely messages you don’t have a chance to get to right away. Or even the next day, or next week. And, just like real debt, our guilt over not responding promptly enough compounds over time.
So, while the idea may sound a little goofy, having a day where we can overcome the mental barrier of going on an apology tour can be a huge stress reducer.
The Email Debt Forgiveness Day is currently slated for August 31st. But, if you miss it, you can probably catch it next time around. (Or simply use the spirit of the day and pick your own day to forgive your email debt.)
How to “celebrate” Email Debt Forgiveness Day
Step 1: Answer old emails. Don’t feel bad about it.
Congrats! You’re done.
Okay—just kidding. But in essence, this is the spirit of the day. It’s meant to give you that free pass to go back in and deal with all the conversations you’ve put off, that feel too far in the past to revive now.
That said, here are some practical ways to use Email Debt Forgiveness Day to your advantage:
1. Assess the contents of your inbox
Sometimes we keep old emails around and feel bad for not answering them, but the reality is, the content and work associated with these emails isn’t actually relevant anymore.
So, start by doing a general clear out. Are there emails you didn’t answer but that you had a face-to-face conversation about? Maybe those ones can go in the trash.
Did your coworker suggest a new idea for a project, but you’ve since decided to go in a different direction? You may not really need to follow up on that.
Just because it’s still in your inbox, doesn’t mean it requires a response—you might just need to do some deep cleaning.
2. Take stock of what’s left
So, you should be left with an inbox that is comprised mostly of your email debt—the messages that really do require a response. From here, take a look at the actual tasks associated with those emails.
Do you need to add any tasks to your list? Consider taking a moment to realistically plot out your upcoming work, so that when you respond, you can give a reasonable timeline.
Are your follow up emails going to involve scheduling meetings? Pull up your calendar and create a list of some times to suggest.
Basically, take a moment to get organized. It’ll feel much less overwhelming if you have a clear understanding of the time, bandwidth, and deliverables associated with the asks that you’ve been putting off.
3. Get going (and maybe fill recipients in on the “holiday”)
Finally, it’s just a matter of biting the bullet and sending out those emails. Remember, no excessive apologies for your lateness or other fanfare—just business as usual.
That said, to help add a little levity, you could consider including this link from Gimlet Media that explains Email Debt Forgiveness Day to your recipient. You could even include a quick opening sentence like this, with the link, before getting to the meat of your message:
“Thanks your patience! Today is Email Debt Forgiveness Day, so I’d love to circle back around to [topic of the email].”
What happens next?
Once the day has passed, what will you do?
You could, of course, let the whole cycle repeat itself. But, one of the joys of a clean slate is that once you’ve cleaned it, it’s much easier to keep it clean.
So, consider taking a moment to set some up some new email procedures.
Tips for avoiding going into email debt in the future:
Schedule a recurring time every day (or week, or amount of times per week) to handle your inbox
You’ve probably heard the advice to treat certain habits like a meeting—a non-negotiable event that you do every day, week, or whatever appropriate interval. Advocates for this strategy suggest adding your gym session, daily meditation, or reading to your calendar, and treating it like a standing meeting or appointment.
If you struggle with an ever-expanding inbox, consider adopting this methodology. Rather than considering your inbox something you’ll get to when you have the time, consciously block out time on your calendar to sort out your email. This way, it’s a standing event that you know when to expect, which will serve both as a way to get in the habit of managing your email regularly, as well as alleviate guilt.
If you’ve put off answering an email because you didn’t have some key piece of information, or needed to tag-team the work, you might consider an email add-on like Outpost, which allows you to assign emails to other team members and add internal notes.
By setting up systems that help you and your team collaborate on email better, you can reduce the number of time emails sit unanswered (and, by extension, reduce your stress levels).
Employ the “five-minute rule”
Have a task that will take you less than five minutes to complete? Do it.
Okay, that’s easier said than done. But, it’s a really powerful technique to keep in mind. The idea here is that if you know a task will take you five minutes or less to complete, just do it right away and get it over with. Ultimately, those five-minute tasks add up and require a much greater amount of your time, and it’s much easier to knock out the small tasks as they come in, rather than add them to the pile.
For a non-email example: I have a bad habit of leaving my sweaters on the couch. But, when I consider the five minute rule, I think about the fact that opening my closet and putting my sweater on a hanger will probably take me about 30 seconds—while hanging up a whole pile of accumulated sweaters all at once might take 10 minutes or longer (depending on how chilly I’ve been that week).
So, if you get an email that requires a quick status update, includes a request for a meeting, or other ask that you can answer fairly quickly, keep the five-minute rule in mind and consider taking care of it ASAP. This way, you’ll cut down on your overall inbox volume, and be able to deal with the more complicated responses during the time you previously set aside for bulk email management.
Sometimes it’s not realistic to strive for inbox zero—and, as the folks at Gimlet pointed out, we all likely experience email debt at one point or another. So, take advantage of the “holiday”—and consider putting some strategies in place and implementing some tools to lessen your debt in the future.