Stop Letting Strangers Dictate What You Do With Your Day


Illustration by La Boca.

Do you leave your front door open, allowing anyone who chooses to walk in and command your attention? I highly doubt it. And yet this is exactly how our email inboxes function.

Your email is the front door for access to your work identity. And anyone who has access to the Internet can step right in — they don’t even have knock.

For most of us, this is leading to an ever-increasing amount of noise in our inboxes. And the volume of these superfluous messages increases in direct proportion to your stature. The more successful or influential you are, the more noise you have to wade through on a daily basis.

This assertion is borne out by a recent study, highlighted in the Harvard Business Review, that analyzed how much time managers devoted to email, IM, and other “e-communications” at 24 large global companies. A quick overview:

  • Senior executives now receive 200 (or more) emails per day.
  • The average frontline supervisor devotes about eight hours each week—a full business day—to sending, reading, and answering e-communications.
  • Of the eight hours managers devote to e-communications each week, we estimate that 25% of that time is consumed reading emails that should not have been sent to that particular manager and 25% is spent responding to emails that the manager should never have answered.

In short, the average manager spends about half a day each week processing irrelevant messages. If we play the math out, that means you could easily spend 26 days — or five work weeks — each year dealing with messages that do not matter and are irrelevant to your work.

All those people just strolling in through your “front door” can have a huge, negative effect on your productivity. And that’s just from processing the messages. Think about what requests and distractions await inside of them. Because those add up too.


Illustration by La Boca.

In the past two weeks, I have fielded requests for 8 interviews. (This is, of course, flattering and I’m by no means complaining about people being interested in my ideas.) That said, let’s look at the possible impact of these 8 people who just stepped in my front door to talk shop.

Each interview, if we account for the back-and-forth messages needed to schedule it, will probably take at least 1 hour. So if I say yes to every single opportunity, I am committing at least 8 hours of my time to fulfilling them. In other words, I could easily spend 1 workday out of every 10 workdays talking about my work rather than doing my work.

And maybe that’s worth it. I do, afterall, have a new book that I want to succeed so getting the word out is important. But equally important is understanding the tradeoffs I am making every time I read an unexpected email and/or agree to an unanticipated request. The ripple effect of accommodating every single stranger who steps through your front door can be substantive — and deeply distracting.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to really close that door. But you can be more conscious about how you respond to everyone who steps over the threshold. A few ideas:

  • Make a set of hard-and-fast rules for yourself about what types of opportunities will get a “yes” and politely decline everything else. For most of us, there’s a pattern to the email noise — whether it be a steady stream of interview requests, speaking engagements, investment opportunities, pro bono work inquiries, freelance jobs, or something else. Decide what criteria need to be present for such an opportunity to be worthwhile for you and make a checklist that you keep handy. If an opportunity ticks all the boxes and you have bandwidth, say yes. If it doesn’t, commit to saying no.
  • Analyze what types of unsolicited email inquiries tend to really eat up your time, and create a system for expediting them. Maybe you get a lot of emails from customers asking you the same question again and again, or maybe it’s inquirites from eager admirers who always ask for advice about the same topics. Once you identify the types of inquiries that are creating the biggest drag on your productivity, strategize about how to deal with them before they usurp your attention—whether that’s setting up an auto-responder, using Gmail to create canned email responses, or redirecting them to an FAQ on your website.
  • Shift from saying “I can’t do that” to “I don’t do that”. Language is powerful, and simple tweaks to the way that you say “no” can have an outsize impact on people’s perception of you. In a 2012 study recently recapped in New York Magazine, researchers found that it was easier for people to stick to resolutions if they said “don’t” instead of “can’t.” So, for instance, you might say, “I don’t answer emails on Saturday” instead of “I can’t answer emails on Saturday”. When you say you “can’t do” something, it conveys weakness and inadequacy—giving the sense that you might want to do the task, but aren’t actually able to. Whereas when you say you “don’t do” something, it conveys power and conviction, a feeling of a rule to which you are staunchly committed. (For more tips on saying “no” check out this piece.)

The next time a new inquiry appears in your inbox, think about how you would feel if that person physically walked into your office and asked you the same question. Would you interrupt what you were doing to give them 100% of your attention? Would it be worth sacrificing the work you had planned to focus on to fulfill their request? If you agree to what they are asking now, will you regret it later?

You can’t control who shows up in your inbox, but you can control how you respond. Nobody knows your priorities better than you.

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For more insight on the psychology behind email addiction, actionable tips on managing inbox overload, and word-for-word scripts for pitching, negotiating, and delivering criticism via email, check out my book: Unsubscribe.


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Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.

I created the online course RESET, a cosmic tune-up for your workday, and I host Hurry Slowly, a podcast about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient by slowing down. Occasionally, I write books and give talks too.
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