SURVEY SAYS – How's Your Email Account?

July 9, 2009 ( - Email - it's both a boon and a bane of our existence (well, mine, at least).

This week, I asked readers how it impacts your life – how much time you spend with it, how many account(s) you have – how many e-mails you have sitting in your in-box (you’re among friends here)…and I gave you a chance to guess about mine.

How did it all come out?    Well, if you’re spending more than an hour/day on e-mail, you have a lot of company – just over half ( 55.7% ) of this week’s respondents were in that category.   In fact, if you spend more than half your day dealing with email, you’re in the company of more than one-in-five ( 22.7% ) of this week’s respondents.  

Just 2.1% spend less than 15 minutes, while 14.4% spend between 15 minutes and an hour.  

The remaining 5% ?   Well, “you don’t want to know” was their response.

Now, I tend to read from newest email backwards - but I interact with plenty of folks who do just the opposite (and who find themselves responding to an item that was resolved three emails after the one they started with).   But among this week's respondents, a clear plurality ( 38.6% ) go from oldest to newest, while just a quarter ( 24.1% ) start at the top of their in-basket.  

I was a bit surprised (though perhaps I shouldn't have been) that one-in-five ( 19.6% ) start with the emails from their boss (as one reader said, "I prioritize by importance and this definitely does not mean my boss's get read first!" ), while 8.4% say that they actually deal with those flagged as urgent ahead of others (though one reader explained "But it's my own priority order!" , and another noted, "My personal priority of importance (family first) )".

Nearly 10% said they "never really thought about it."

There were a number of "unique" approaches, including the following:

Priority order with those from my boss being highest priority.

Actually, they're listed alphabetically by sender, and so that's the way I read them usually. (And my boss is in the T's - tehe.)

Unless I'm in pure "oldest to newest " mode which depends on how many unread emails are there, I look for the names I consider most important to respond to (e.g., client, boss, or someone I was expecting a response from).

Generally oldest to newest, but depending on what is going on at the time I'll seek out e-mails related to those issues first, then revert to the oldest to newest method.

It's really a combination. Normally, there are just a handful of new ones so it doesn't matter so much. When I return from a trip and there are many I scan first for boss or other really important ones to open first, then the ones I can delete easily, then I proceed from oldest to newest in case there is a sequence of emails so I don't miss what happened in the order it happened.

I skim through to find any flagged as urgent or with a subject I may need to address right away. Then I go back and read oldest to newest. Reading newest to oldest is just WRONG!!

I prioritize by importance and this definitely does not mean my boss's get read first!

A function of the subject and sender.

It really all depends. Sometimes I start with the Senders to see who the most important is and sometimes I may use Subject as the determining factor.

Unless there's something urgent or something I'm waiting for, I read the things I perceive as easiest to deal with first -- in my twisted way of trying to make the best of the email nightmare, I figure if I read - and delete - the easiest things first, I've easily gotten rid of a good bulk of them. If I know I don't have the time to take action on something the moment I read it, I don't read it - or I'll open it, read it, then flag it as unread. Needless to say, there are a lot of unread emails in my inbox at any given time.

Some other approaches:

I only have 2 accounts, one at home and one at work. I usually don't get more than maybe 50 at work daily, and respond pretty quickly to them. I only check my home account when I get home from work, and only one time during the weekend. My home inbox may have 15 to 20 at most. I was away for 4 days over the July 4th weekend, and only had 42 emails, a little less than half were advertisements. I delete the advertisements first, then I read the others starting at the top, newest first. I usually get more in my junk box than my inbox. When I am home and on the computer, my husband complains that I spend more time on that damn box than I do with him.

Generally oldest to newest; if there is a large chunk of email (for example, returning from time away), I will group the email by subject and read the most current before the oldest-to-newest method.

Unless I've been out of town, then "boss first" followed by newest to oldest.

Easiest to hardest! I delete the ones that don't make it through the spam filter, delete the ones I'm not interested in and don't need my response (not business-related), then tackle the stuff that really needs my attention.

Scan newest to oldest and open/respond to highest priorities first.

Priority order based on subject line

I typically respond to the newest first but when there are too many, I respond first to the ones that are easiest to get rid of. ( meaning one response takes care of it).

A proprietary prioritized order(:

Personal priority order based on sender name.

I scan through the unreads, deleting the obvious junk mail, and prioritize by author and topic.

Usually look first at responses I'm expecting to receive unless something flagged as urgent is waiting.

Priority order as determined by me after scanning the list of what is new.

Start with those from my boss or any other high level person who typically doesn't email me, then I go oldest to newest.

Email "Accounts"

I asked readers how many email accounts they were keeping up with, and nearly half ( 42.3% ) said two - the most common response.   Roughly half that many - 24.7% - had three accounts, while 13.4% were keeping pace with four.

Just over 7% were maintaining five accounts, and nearly as many said they were keeping up with more than five accounts.

The remaining 5.2% - were only dealing with a single account.


I also asked readers how many emails they had in their in-basket, and nearly half ( 43.8% ) said they had less than 100.

Just under 18% had between 100 and 500, while 7.3% said they had more than 500 emails in their in-basket, but less than 1,000.

On the other hand, 26.0% said they had more than a thousand, but less than 5,000, while just 5.2% had more than 5,000.   

Now, I had asked readers if they had any favorite email stories, and, as you might expect, there was quite a bit of variety:

There were "

While I currently have 55 active emails in my inbox, that is a recent event. I am very particular about my emails not exceeding one screen view so when it reached 150+ and stayed that way for several months I was absolutely insane!  

My mother and grandmother avoided computers as long as possible until they heard about email keeping them connected to friends and family. Now they both love it and are constantly sending little notes to everyone. It's cute and we don't have long phone conversations as much anymore.

Wow - I have 3 aol e-mail accounts - 2 personal and 1 for work, a personal yahoo e-mail and a work yahoo e-mail account and my regular work e-mail account - this reminded me to check my personal yahoo e-mail account - 2229 unread e-mails - i spend so much time each day managing my primary e-mail at work, my work e-mail at home, my primary personal e-mail at home plus responding to anything important on facebook and linked in, that i sometimes forget how to function with nobody sending me anything - but if that ever happens, i can log into yahoo and see if any of the 2229 unread e-mails need replying to.

I work with large money transfers. Due to disaster recovery concerns, such as a tornado taking out our office, we require our vendor communication to come through e-mail. I save every e-mail concerning our investments for an audit trail. However, our IT department limits our storage and will turn away new, and in my opinion important, e-mail when we reach that limit. As many reports I receive exceed 5MB I find myself constantly archiving large e-mails, they auto archive after 30days, needlessly increasing the amount of time I spend to manage my e-mail account. Ironically, my free personal e-mail account allows 200% more memory than my business account!

There were some real-life "

One time I needed to complete some work by a daily deadline that required a forwarded email from a coworker. I asked for the email but never got it. I needed to bug that person a couple times for urgency. It was really making me mad because I thought I was being ignored. I still didn't get the email and they told me they sent it more than once. I was so frustrated and upset that I just told them to print it and give it to me because my deadline was really close.   The next day I was doing unrelated work and happened to look in a separate email folder - it holds rarely used messages on a single subject, mainly for audit purposes after the fact. That folder had rules set up to hold messages from my in box with a very unique character string. All the messages I wasn't getting from this person were in the special folder. My missing messages had that same unique character string so they never even showed in my in box. Ironically, the only reason the character string even matched was because of a typo!

I work for a 401k provider as a customer service rep. I work directly with plan sponsors, not participants. I once received an email question from an HR rep. The HR rep had copied in the company CFO. When I replied, I replied to all. The CFO, upon receipt of my answer, also replied to error. She had meant to send her message directly to the HR rep, and I'm paraphrasing, but her email said something along the lines of "you should request this response via letter, as I do not trust this answer."   Needless to say I immediately picked up the phone and gave the CFO a call. I let her know that I had received her email in error, but that it was probably for the best as we obviously needed to talk. She was very embarrassed, but thanked me for calling her and was quite surprised I did so given the circumstances. We discussed the situation and when we hung up, she was satisfied she had the correct information.

There were "

Not a story so much as a tip to make email at least SEEM more manageable. If your actual inbox has hundreds or thousands of e-mails in it, it's going to be overwhelming. With liberal use of folders, you can keep your actual inbox in check. At any given time, I strive to make sure I only have enough items in my inbox to fill up the screen without scrolling - everything else is stashed in folders. I have far too many email messages to count, but all but a couple dozen are in folders. In makes looking at the inbox far less overwhelming. Now, if I could just find a way to make more incoming emails go away altogether...

A pet peeve, really. It irritates me when I get an email from a third party, and then within minutes or hours, at least two or three people who were cc'd on the email forward the email to me. I wish they would stop and read the cc so that they would know that I was already on the distribution list.

And then, of course, there were a number of " horror " stories:

I don't know which is worse; the reply to all option or the auto-fill when typing in an email address. My friend sent a scathing email to her friend (or so she thought) about her supervisor. Unfortunately, the email went to a group email of supervisors (including hers) at her agency. It turned out to be the last straw for her and she was asked to retire.

My favorite is in the genre of "Always Check the Names in the To Line":   My buddy and I were using email to coordinate our travel plans for a football game that evening. I noted my excitement, and his intent was to responded with a non-profane, yet suggestive email. At the time, my friend was involved in a couple of email conversations, one of which was a VP at our firm... who ended up being the recipient of his off-color remark. My friend freaked and left for the day (hilarious reaction, and we still went to the game). Either the VP disregarded the comment, or just didn't care, because nothing really came of it.

When I was working at another company, my co-worker had just put in her 2-weeks' notice. She got an email from our boss asking her to do something. So, she started typing away about how she was so glad to be leaving, how the boss was a joke, etc. She thought she hit forward to me, but hit reply to our boss instead! There wasn't a way to recall the message, so our boss read it right away. They didn't make much eye contact for the next two weeks.

Oh...there are a few. I have a friend (really, it wasn't me) who was sending an e-mail about a project manager to another coworker. The e-mail was critical of the PM. She mentioned the PM's name in the e-mail but was afraid she had the spelling wrong. Soooo, she typed the name in the "CC" line since the type-ahead feature would pull the name from her e-mail list, and she'd be sure to get the spelling correct.   However, she forgot to remove the PM's name from the CC line before she sent this scathing e-mail. She called me after she sent it to ask if there was any way to delete it BEFORE the PM saw it (the PM was out of town for a few days). I told her unless she knew a system administrator REALLY well, she was SOL. After cogitating on it, we decided she should call the PM and leave a message and explain what happened.   The PM actually took this all in stride and laughed it off. But my friend was just mortified for a week until the PM came back and called her.

And one " ghost " story:

An email story from beyond the grave: I emailed a few former colleagues that another former colleague had passed away. Every Friday for about 6 weeks, my email would be mysteriously them of the death. My IT department was stumped. The emails eventually stopped, and I hope our departed colleague is resting in peace.

But this week's Editor's Choice goes to the reader who said he was "…generally a nice guy, but this one day I was very frustrated and sent off a reply to someone with a bit of attitude. As it was sending, I looked up and realized I had "replied to all" (about 300 people) and began pulling wires out of the wall to stop the email. It didn't work..."

Thanks to everyone who participated in our survey!

editor's note:  some of you may have noticed that I didn't speak to how many emails I had in my in-basket.  A plurality (19.8%) said more than 1,000, but less than 5,000.  The real answer - tomorrow (that will give me time to do some clean-up!) is now  HERE

The reality is that I've NEVER been very good about keeping my emails at a manageable level, and despite knowing how, and knowing better, I am too inclined to use my email in-basket as a filing cabinet.   And that was before I was reaching out to 51,000+ people every day.

Still, having asked each of you in this week's survey to share your email "status", I figured it was only fair to give you a chance to guess what my email account looked like.  

The responses were all over the board.   The most common response was the 19.8% who thought I had somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 emails.   Just over 7% said they "had no idea", and just 3.1% of this week's respondents admitted that they didn't care.

Among those who did, roughly 15% each guessed at less than 100, more than 100, but less than 500, or more than 500 but less than a 1,000, and just over 8% figured my in-basket had more than 5,000 emails in it.

The truth is - as nearly 18% of this week's respondents guessed - is that I have "WAY more than 5,000" - like by a factor of ten, in fact - much to my IT team's discomfiture, I might add.

I'd love to tell you that that's been a mistake for me - but it's been more help than hinderance.   That said, I plan to do "better."   And isn't admitting you have a problem the first step?

Thanks for participating in this survey!   And for taking the time to check out this "extra" survey result!