Email Debt


I’m in Email Debt.  Deep, deep email debt.  Anyone out there know what I’m talking about? If you’re a friend of mine, I’m certain you do.  Because chances are good that you sent me a lovely, thoughtful email in the recent past (this millennium), and I failed to respond in a timely manner. Or ever. I am truly sorry.

I have the feeling I’m not alone. The other day I heard Twitter co-founder Biz Stone on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He said a lot that was interesting to me, but one comment stood out in particular:  “I get so many emails per day, I’ll occasionally do what’s called declaring email bankruptcy, which is I just delete everything in my email and I tell people if you had anything important, please resend. I just give up because I see hundreds and hundreds of emails – some of them stretching back a month and I know that it’s too late to do whatever that person needed me to do.”

I just haven’t mastered dealing with email.  I read every single one that comes from a genuine human.  (I do not read all my spam.  That would be silly.)  I have 3 main categories of emails – my inbox, active business and active personal.  My inbox contains what I received in the past few days.  I try not to use my inbox as a to do list. Instead I try to respond to all emails the same day I get them and then move the received emails to “processed”.  As of this moment, my inbox is completely empty.  But then again, it’s 1:46 AM where I live.  It won’t be long before they start streaming in again.

My “active” folders are messages I haven’t dealt with but want to take action on.  I’m embarrassed to tell you how many messages are in there.  But this blog is all about telling my truth, so I’ll share:  337 business and 514 personal.  Horrifying.  (If you are represented in one of these categories, please refer back to my apology from the first paragraph).

For the past month I’ve been trying to handle 10 “active” messages a day.  My thought was that in a month and a half I would have worked my way out of email debt, at least in the business category.  Then I could start tackling personal.  But with all the new emails coming in constantly, I’ve only eliminated around 50 active messages.

As bothered as I am about this situation, I’m unwilling to make email a higher priority than family, client service, marketing or self-care.  Is it time for me to declare email bankruptcy?  Anyone have any other suggestions about how to deal with email backlog?  Anyone else struggling with this one?  I’d really appreciate your comments below.  (Please, please don’t send your suggestions via email).  🙂


  1. Allison

    I struggle with this EVERY single day. The longer and more thoughtful the email, the longer it takes me to respond because I need to have enough time to write a "proper" response. I wish I had some magic solution for you. I just keep trying to chip away and trying to accept that I probably will never catch up unless I declare bankruptcy. I have threatened that many times, but have never had a good name for it before!

  2. Barbara

    I certainly have an email debt problem as well. I'm happy when I can get my inbox under 150 messages. My latest idea has been to add to my calendar things I need to do that come up in emails. I then treat the item as an appointment and try to get to it at the appointed time. It doesn't always work, but it's better than using my inbox as a to-do list.

  3. Debra Woog

    Yes, I definitely handle the new emails in a prioritized way. It's the backlog that's getting to me. Any ideas for that?

  4. Josh

    You could set up a filtering system, whereby if certain important people in your life email you, it goes to a P1 folder. Then active clients P2, replies to your emails, P3…something like that.