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Here is one simple trick to end your inbox insanity

Winding staircase
Reuters/Kieran Doherty
Be the master of your inbox rabbit hole.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

You’ve tried Google’s new Inbox app and every other bloody “email management” app out there. You’ve tried browser extensions, browser add-ons, the hipster journal, the non-hipster journal, GTD books, mindfulness, lifehacking… nothing ever works—your inbox is a mess. You have thousands of emails pending and the will to live is now slowly ebbing out of your being.

Wait. There is one more trick that might just bring some sanity to your much maligned inbox.

That trick is called: Clarification.

I can stake no claim to have invented this trick. But I’ve been using it ever since my first job working in an automotive parts factory in Chennai. Perhaps I picked it up from a colleague. My memory fails. But you know what never fails me?

Exactly. Clarification.

This is how this trick works.

First you open your email inbox. Right away, you know which emails aren’t going to be a problem. The easy stuff. The stuff you don’t sweat over.

Ignore those.

What we are looking for are the messages that have been rotting away in your inbox for days. And you just can’t be bothered to respond to. But you can’t delete them either. Because they are kind of important.
Those are the worst. The vaguely actionable but definitely not deletable. These tend to form a large part of your clogged inbox.
Open the first one. Aha. Your boss wants you to draw up a powerpoint presentation outlining your team’s hiring needs for the next financial year. As soon as you open the email, you throw up a little in your mouth. You hate such assignments.

Patience, my friend.

Scan the email and find something to clarify. But choose carefully. Clarify something too small, and you’ll end up getting a quick response—precisely what you don’t want.

“Hey Boss! When do you want this by?”

The idea is to not to generate more actionable emails.

Clarify something too complicated, and you’ll either piss people off or, even worse, force them to call a meeting. The only thing worse than a clogged inbox is a meeting.

“Hey Boss! Are we sure we’re approaching this whole hiring thing in the right away? Shouldn’t we review our annual business plans before working on a hiring plan?”
The only thing worse than a clogged inbox is a meeting.

Strike a balance. For instance: ask your boss if she wants the presentation to include both experienced and fresh recruits? This could force your boss to think for a few minutes.

Then go one step further with your clarification. Not only should you clarify, but also suggest why it may be difficult for the recipient to respond to your query.

Give them a reason to never write back to you.

Let us take the above example. In addition to your doubts about new hires, ask your boss if your powerpoint presentation needs to take into account manpower budgets for your team. If so, tell her that you will need to spend a few days figuring out what the latest trends in campus hiring are. Is she sure she wants you to set aside time for that?


Now there is just one thing left to do. Always close your clarification email on a positive, upbeat note. This gives the impression that you really do want to launch on this assignment right away, if it only weren’t for these dang clarifications. Awwww.


“Hey! Just saw your email. Awesome. We need some fresh blood in the team and soon. Just had a couple of quick queries. Is this presentation just for experienced recruits, just for campus hires, or for both? Also does this also have to cover manpower budgets as well or just headcount numbers. I want to be sure before I start because this could take a few days to pull together.
Also is there a standard template HR wants us to use? You know how they can be. I have attached last year’s global HR review presentation for you to flip through. Maybe you could just scan it, pick out some slides you like, and I can replicate?
Anyway do revert as soon as possible. Can’t wait to get started.

In my experience the perfectly crafted clarification email has numerous benefits:

  1. It can help save time. People often fire off emails without thinking if they really need to get something done. And then when you ask for clarifications, they wonder: “What does he mean by ‘Does this include all taxes or just state taxes and should I add federal taxes as well’? Oh god I don’t care. Delete.” Boom. Numerous man-hours saved.
  2. It can bring greater focus. I have often felt that each successive clarification email helps to distill tasks to their bare minimums. Clarifications are an excellent tool to undo the many evils born out of scope creep.
  3. They help to get rid of unessential tasks.Thirdly, the modern workplace often has a tendency to create unessential tasks that nobody really cares for. Often this is the byproduct of bad meetings, manager whims and brownie-point scoring campaigns. Usually these bad ideas just die. But the limitless storage capacities of modern email inboxes give these bad ideas unnecessary longevity. Clarifications help hasten them to their graves.
  4. They make you look good. Clarifications also do one magical thing: they make you look smarter and more resourceful, even as you are actually doing less and less work. People on the other side of the email trail will think to themselves: “What a really smart chap. He asks such great questions. What a great mind. So what if this is taking four months longer than originally planned? At least we are doing it well.”

There is just one pitfall to the clarification strategy: Every once in a while you may run into another master of the art.

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