Managing Email

A story from a WSJ reader (Michael B. Johnson) on how to manage email overload:

Years ago, I was comparing notes with my fellow grad student at the MIT Media Lab and housemate, Joe Chung. We were discussing various faculty and students and their e-mail abilities.

We easily agreed on who was the smoothest e-mailer of them all — our fearless leader, the founder and director of the Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte. Nicholas always got back to you within eight hours, and as MIT grad students, we pretty much invented the term “odd working hours,” so we appreciated sending mail at 11 p.m. and getting a response at 3 a.m. Nicholas also always seemed to answer the question, even if it wasn’t the answer you wanted.

We puzzled over it for a bit, trying to figure out why Nicholas always seemed in command. And then we summed it up — Nicholas always “put the onus of communication back on the sender” (you can tell we were in grad school — we used words like “onus” naturally).

For example, I sent Nicholas e-mail one time about some hardware the lab was supposed to be getting. Nicholas got back to me a few hours later, sending me mail from Greece. He said that he wasn’t sure when it was to arrive, but X would probably know, if I wanted to track them down. Either way, when he was back in the office the following week, if I pinged him then he would get me a definitive answer.

Well, see, this is brilliant. Nicholas tells you as much as he remembers about it at that moment, and then says “ask me next week”. Of course, most of the time you don’t remember to ask next week. This isn’t bad — odds are good that things sorted themselves by themselves (i.e. the equipment showed up) or I tracked down X and found out myself, or it wasn’t really that important.

Either way, Nicholas is done. Message dealt with.

Over the years, I’ve tried to have similar discipline.

Wow. We’re reconsidering those times we wondered if Mr. Negroponte was really such a genius. That’s the most elegant defense against e-mail overload we’ve ever run across. And so simple. Call it e-mail jujitsu.


Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.