Kill email before email kills you!

This is a personal and true story from my own life. It is a story about how working in an old fashioned way made me crash “into the brick wall” – burnt out without any energy left. A sad story. But also with a happy ending. A story about how I changed my attitude and got myself a totally «New Way To Work».

Years ago I worked for a company where my department used email as its main production line. All communication was taking place through the inbox. Even if they sat a few meters from each others they sent email to be sure to document everything they did. All their dialogues was through email.

It burned me out after a short time being locked into this email jail. I never got on top of my tasks and soon I met the wall with a bang. My body was in pain, my feelings was in pain. I had to leave meetings abruptly to go to the mens room to vomit or get some air to calm down and stop shivering.

My medical doctor was deadly honest: – You are overworked and you have only two options – fight or flight! But I don’t think you should fight any more, because your energy level is as low as it can get. You have to flight and move away from the situation, rebuild your energy, take long walks, clean out your stress and find a new way to handle all your tasks at work.

So, he told me to stay away from work for three months, he medicated me and sent me to a coach.

Three moths later, after a really tough time, I was back in business, with new energy, with a smile on my face, and whistling on a happy tune on my way to work – with a plan!

The turnaround!
I had decided to change the way I work. I had to get out of my inbox and get a new load balance by clustering with my colleagues. I had to share my tasks, my knowledge, my dialogues, my documents, my thoughts and my idéas with my colleagues. I had finally understood that working together is easier than working alone. Alone I can lift kilos. Together we can lift tons!

So I stopped my email abuse. And started work socially, using the social intranet for internal interaction, using the external social network for external interaction. I became an email extremist!

Are you one of those who have hundreds of emails waiting to be dealt with when coming home from vacation? I guess the answer is yes, unless you are one of those who read your work mail also when having time off. Time off?

Some of us use the out-of-office function in our mail client from time to time, saying things like “I am out of office until x-date and will not be able to deal with your email until I am back”.

This automated message tells the sender that nothing will happen until you are back. Or maybe your automated reply should also give a message that told the sender who to connect with while you are away – or maybe all email should be re-routed to a colleague who is on duty? Then things are taken care of when you are away.

Anyhow – there are lots of emails to deal with when you get back. If you are brave enough you could formulate an automated answer like Joana Breidenbach of charity fundraisers Betterplace. Send a mail to her when she is on a vacation and you’ll get an automated answer like this:

” Many thanks for your mail. Unfortunately I won’t be able to read it, as I am taking my annual email sabbatical. From August 1-29 all my emails will be automatically deleted. See you in September, Yours Joana.”

Wow, what a brave woman! Wish I dared to do that! Instead I keep all the incoming mail in my inbox and return an automated message saying something like ” I am out of office from x-date to y-date and will not be able to answer any mail. If urgent please call my colleague XYZ on X-phone number. If not I will deal with your email when I am back”.

The Solution!
The clue is then to sort your inbox when you are back again and only deal with the important ones. First thing I do is clicking on the button «Show only new email». Then I sort the emails using the “Blueberries” (a nice sorting function in IBM Notes, to my knowledge there are no other email systems offering the same or similar function). “Blueberries”, as I call them, are small blue dots marking each email whether the email is for me only, for me and four more people or for lots and lots of people. If you are not aware of this function look for it in the mail preferences.

All the emails with an open dot (not filled with blue color) I instantly delete without even opening them. Those mails are mostly for information to a whole range of people and are usually of no interest to me, nor have a content that is imperative for my tasks and goals.

All the emails with a half full dot are directly meant for me and four others. This is typical for mail that concerns a small group of people, especially people working close together on a team or on a project. These mails I do not delete, but set on hold until I have dealt with those mails that are addressed to me only, which is indicated with a full blue dot.

These are the emails I work through first and decide there and then what to do with them. Are there any action I have to do? Usually you find your tasks in the bottom of the mail. If so, could I do it in two minutes before I open the next mail? If so – I do it there and then without delay! Done is done! Next email!

If there are mails that do not expect any action from me, but have important information I should read later, then I flag the mail for later action – which to me means no more than 24 hours!

Me – the email extremist!
My personal mail regime is that there should be maximum 5 mails in my inbox at the end of office hours. All those five mails should be flagged and have to be dealt with before I do any new tasks the next work day!

I do not use folders in my mailbox. Folders and archives are where documents and emails go to die. Folders and archives are – in my mind – the graveyard of knowledge. Only documents and email on travel, in action, has a real value.

Think of it: If you have a marriage contract with your spouse on how things (economy, house and other stuff) should be split between you if, by any chance, you should get divorced (50 % of all marriages in my country ends with divorces) – what value does that contract/agreement have while there are only happy days? None, whatsoever! The document is stored in the safe and has no value until it gets activated when the war is firing up! Then it has a value and become what former military professionals (as myself) calls «Rules of War».

Don’t store – share!
Many of us download a lot of stuff from internet. It might be good to have this information some day. We become information hoarders.

So what do I do with email I have to store? Well, I do not store them – I share them with my team in communities, activities, in project rooms or in customer communities. Because those creates dialogue around the documents and the mails. Because more people than myself can learn from those emails and documents and we all learn more together from the dialogues we share.

Documents have no value!
In my mind a dialogue around a document has more value than the document itself. Because a document is created by one brain only, but dialogues happens between a number of brains. And a number of brains have more creativity, more knowledge and more processor power than just one.

I call this “The Clustering of Brains”. Those of you who know how we cluster data servers to balance the workload, to secure information and to speed up processing performance, will know what I mean. It is the same with brain clusters.

So I bring my information, my mail, my documents out in the open. Today, in my own company Brainworker, I use IBM Connections Cloud, both internally and externally. For email, for sharing documents, for sharing discussions, wikis, files, adresses, editing documents, spreadsheets, presentations web meetings, chat – almost everything! It reduces my inbox, improve my productivity, improve my skills and provides a better load balance (the balance between my work life, private life and my private values).

And I use this great solution both on my Mac’s and my handhelds. It is simply a total new way to work that helps me stay on top of everything. It helps me get a balanced life.

So maybe my new out-of-office message should be something like this:

” Thank you for sending me email. If I am only one of hundreds of receivers (BCC:) I will probably not find your email important and focused enough to read and therefore I will delete it, unread. If yourr email is meant only for me or a group of five I will read it during work hours and take action within 24 hours. Be aware that I never read email attachments. Please share them in a community where all stakeholders may share dialogues around the document and share ideas – to make us all more productive and knowledgable. For short messages please call me on phone or ping me on Sametime. Have a nice and productive day!”

Or something like that…

Kill email before email kills you! Get a social life!

PS! Some of the email handling methods I describe above are based on my earlier IBM Notes email client. Now I use IBM Verse which is an intelligent email reader/handler and acts more or less like a personal assistant. IBM Verse is part of my social intra/extranet that I use to collaborate both internally and externally with business partners and customers.


  1. Nazi can’t be in any way or meaning something positive. For the respect and honor of the people who suffered and died during this terrible time, I would look for a better word.


    1. I agree. And I will change that to “extremist”. “Nazi” is just a way of expression that many people in my country use to express that someone stick extremely to their principles. I am sorry if anyone found this offensive.


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