Combating Multi-Inbox Fatigue: How to De-Fragment Your Communications
The Problem of Too Many Inboxes
What do you see when you open your phone? If you’re like most people, there are 9-10 different apps just for communication. And it’s likely they all require your attention with at least some regularity.
Even to contact anyone, you must do the “mental math” of figuring out which platform is the best for both the contact and the message you want to convey.
At one time we would have defaulted to email, but for many, email is broken, and messages go to email inboxes to die. So, we experiment, sending messages through other channels.
Between SMS, email, iMessage, Telegram, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Voicemail, WhatsApp, Instagram, Zoom chat, Tik-Tok, Snapchat, Google Hangouts, LinkedIn, etc. the choices seem endless. And it’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed at the prospect of communicating at all. Honestly, I’m just waiting for the day the USPS decides to release a chat app just to add to our pain!
Even if you don’t view all these apps as “inboxes,” they essentially have the same function. At the end of the day, each app will have some notification that—if ignored—can negatively impact your relationship with the sender.
By having so many services, we’ve added stress-inducing decisions to even our most basic task: communicating. You may have noticed that this results in incredibly inefficient communications flow. At best, this communication chaos can cause you to waste time trying to respond to everything, and at worst it can damage the relationships you’re trying to foster. This is especially problematic for those whose relationships are key components of their professional lives.
This discombobulated communication flow can lead to inefficient use of time, disorganization throughout your life, and the feeling of constantly being overwhelmed. You might also start to experience subtler, but more deeply painful issues: things like a fragmented mind, the inability to focus, and constant mental and emotional fatigue.
Sound familiar? If so, you may be suffering from multi-inbox fatigue.
There is no perfect solution to these problems. Unfortunately, most of the big players in messaging favor the walled-garden approach and have built their platforms behind private API’s. And I’m highly doubtful that we’ll see that change anytime soon. This means we’re stuck with what we have for the foreseeable future (but if you happen to know of an existing solution, please let us know! We would love to check it out).
Thankfully, we can still reduce the effects of multi-inbox fatigue by making it easy to commit to a few simple tactics:
- Decide to eliminate as many inboxes as possible.
- Get intentional about when you will interact with the inboxes you keep.
While it’s not perfect, it is simple, and it works. Luckily, most people you communicate with will likely have at least 2-3 of these services in common. For example, email, SMS, and at least one business-focused channel, like Slack, are likely to be shared amongst most of your network. This will make using these tactics much easier.
Tactic #1 – Less is More
The most powerful tactic to combat multi-inbox fatigue is to stop using as many channels as possible. We can’t tell you which channels to eliminate, but we can tell you that the adage “less is more” is a great way to approach this. Reduce the inboxes you’re dealing with to a minimum.
If you can, get down to only two channels. One for ongoing, long-form communications and one for shorter, instant reaction type of messages. This is the best way to defragment your communications and regain control.
If you believe you need more options than that for very specific reasons, or you’re unwilling to go down to 2 channels, then do the best you can. Any channels you can cut out will have a positive impact.
Implementing Tactic #1 – Pragmatics and Examples
While it might some drastic, the best way to shut down a communication channel is to go cold turkey. Completely stop checking the inbox or engaging with the service in any way. Turn off the notifications and delete the account.
If that doesn’t work for you, you can systematically slow down how much you use these inboxes with the best practices outlined below.
Whenever someone reaches out to you via a channel you “closed down” but didn’t delete, respond via the channel you would’ve preferred. Use it as an opportunity to educate them on the new system and frame it to help them get answers from you faster.
For example, you may get a message from your friend Jean via LinkedIn that says:
“Hey Francis! It’s been a long-time! I’d love to chat a bit and hear what’s going on in your world! I was also wondering if you happened to know Ken Ng well enough you could make an introduction?? I’d like to pick his brain for some advice on a project I’m working on like what he’s done in the past. Thanks, Jean.”
Since it’s LinkedIn, you receive this message a week after it was sent and wish it would have come through email. A good response, that gets the idea across, could be something like this:
“Hey Jean, I just got your LinkedIn message. My apologies for taking so long to respond. I’m assuming the intro request is obsolete at this point but in any case, I’m afraid I wouldn’t have been much help. I don’t know Ken that well at all. In the future, if you have requests for me, please reach out via email! You’ll get a much quicker response. And hopefully next time I’ll be able to make that intro! Thanks, Francis”
If you feel you need further reasons to get buy-in from your network you can point to any of Mathilde Collin or Justin Kahn’s recent suggestions and say you’ve been following them for mental health, having seen great results.
Bonus tip: Implying you are “not the best person to be asking for help” is also a nice way to tell someone you can’t do something, without having to give them a hard no.
To take this a step further and increase the less-is-more benefits, let’s get into how to really refine and define the usage rules around those inboxes you have chosen to keep active.
Tactic #2 – Mindfully Building Your Interaction Calendar
The second most powerful tactic to fight multi-inbox fatigue is defining how often you will be using each inbox. Give yourself permission to match the frequency of checking your messages with the appropriate channel. You have the options of being instantly available, checking daily, a few times a day, weekly, or monthly. Your choices should reflect how often you need to respond to things that appear on each channel.
Be as restrictive as possible, the more you can push an inbox to being checked only once a week or once a month, the greater the stress relief, defragmentation, and increased clarity will be.
Here’s an example of what this could look like:
|Channel||How often I check the inbox||Expected response time|
|SMS text||Instant (only 1 channel should be instant)||As soon as the message is seen|
|Email, Slack||3x per day||Morning, Noon, and Evening|
|LinkedIn, WhatsApp||Daily||Within the day|
|Twitter, Telegram||Once per week||Within the week|
|Facebook, Instagram||Once per month||Within a month|
This is just an example. There may be variations in your decisions. This is to demonstrate that the more inboxes you can push further down the table, into the weekly or monthly categories, the less they will affect your life and the more profound the impacts will be.
The power of these rules of engagement comes from giving yourself permission to not be instantly available. Many text-based channels have an inherent assumption that you will be immediately available to respond. Freeing yourself from this expectation helps to alleviate much of the stress we feel around our inboxes.
By moving communications to fewer channels, and using them less often, you are not only de-fragmenting you’ll be able to be more mentally prepared to respond to important messages with more time to do so. Having more time allows you to work more proactively in responding since you won’t be reacting to everything that comes in, increasing the velocity of important conversations.
Expertly Implement Your Rules
Help yourself follow your rules by turning off notifications. Do this for all your devices, for every inbox, except for the one defined for use in emergencies or as instantly available.
Now that you’ve given yourself permission to not check your inboxes all the time, you don’t need to see a notification for every message. Services like WhatsApp and Email do not need notifications because you’ll deal with them in the time allotted for those channels.
Android users can see if their apps have something in them even if the notifications are turned off by using the “App Badges.” App badges are the little dots that appear next to your apps when they receive a notification. You can adjust whether your apps display App icon badges or not.
From Settings, tap Notifications, and then tap App icon badges. Tap the switch at the top to turn the badges on or off. Choose Number or Dot under Badge style to suit your preference. This will allow you to be able to quickly see whether you even need to check your weekly and monthly inboxes.
iPhone users can set their notifications to a “deliver quietly” mode, where the device will not alert them to the message, but it will store it in the notifications bar. To set an app to do this, swipe left on a notification from the notification bar and tap “Manage” from there you can change the settings on how notifications are delivered.
From settings, iPhone users can also remove just the app badges from their home screen by going to Settings > Notifications then choosing the individual apps you want to update. You can choose to keep app badges for your instant communication (ex: SMS messenger) but remove the app badges for all other channels.
Gaining Internal Support
Sticking to your rules will be much easier if you let your network know that this is how you will be operating and get their opt-in to help you out. You can do this by creating a “How I Work” document, clearly laying out the purpose for each form of communication, and when people can expect you to reply.
We recommend setting these up for a variety of purposes, but one of the major focuses is the “How I Communicate” section where you can lay out all the rules you come up with in a clear and simple format.
- SMS: Do not text me unless it is urgent, something where you need an instant reaction from me, and I’m the only one who can help.
- Slack: Use Slack for a quicker response when it can be a simple answer and the conversation can be wrapped up in 2-3 messages.
- Email: Primarily use email when you need a decision from me; indicate that in the subject by using this format: Decision | example problem. This will let me know if I’m blocking up a process and need to take action.
Over time this will result in your communications (especially internal) being more naturally skewed towards your inbox of choice. Increasing the efficiency of your communications with those people on your team that you communicate with the most.
When people go outside of these rules, you can re-use the best practice of replying via your preferred channel, and including the context/reasoning behind this, to let them see the reason behind the change.
I genuinely believe that if you honestly and clearly communicate your new rules, a lot of people will be receptive to them. Hell, they may even like them enough to adopt some of the rules themselves.
Getting your network onboard won’t eliminate all the problems of having too many inboxes, but it will cut out a bunchf those off-channel, unplanned, one-off communications—the ones you almost never respond to until it’s too late.
Leverage a Better Solution
I know that truly restructuring your communications and trying to enforce a set of rules across your entire network can be a difficult task, and inevitably brings up some reservations. You may find yourself thinking somewhere along the lines of:
- It sounds great to cut back on inboxes and save time, but I don’t think I can get my whole network to opt-in to using these rules.
- I’m not comfortable forcing other people to use a communication channel of my choice when they may have a different one.
- I really need to be using all the channels I’m currently using and don’t think I could get rid of any.
These feelings are often due to that FOMO that is so strong in a lot of us. We’re used to seeing everything immediately, and many people can’t imagine a world in which a message for them can wait. It’s completely understandable given the state of modern communication technology.
But when you reduce your inboxes and really reintegrate how you communicate, you may realize that you actually miss less context and information in your messages, and you are better equipped to take full advantage of the opportunities that come out of them.
If you have the advantage of working with an EA or Chief of Staff, we’ve developed a way to use that leverage to outsource a lot of this work—a magic bullet our clients tell us. This can dramatically reduce your workload and save you time. If you’re interested, you can read these articles on Inbox Shadowing and Working With Your EA to learn a lot more about the process.
If you found yourself identifying with this post and think these solutions may be for you, please reach out to us. We’d love to explore how we can help you free up 8+ hours of your time each week to efficiently leverage your communications—and by extension your relationships—to their fullest benefit.