After returning from vacation to 765 unread emails, I tried ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s hack of responding to everything ASAP. It just created a bunch more work.

Eric Schmidt
Eric Schmidt. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach
  • I tried a productivity hack for my 765 unread emails.
  • Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt replies to emails as soon as possible, even with one or two words.
  • I tried it out and from what I learned, it’s not a useful technique for most people.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

I recently took a couple of days away from work, and although I enjoyed it, I’ve returned to a common problem: An overflowing email inbox – 765 unreads to be exact.

It’s a perennial problem facing most knowledge workers. The average worker sends and receives as many as 126 emails a day, according to a 2019 report by research consultancy Radi Cati.

Joint research by New York University and Harvard Business School research found that the number of emails sent and received had increased 5% during the pandemic.

Rather than ignore my hundreds of messages, I decided to try a productivity hack pioneered by ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt. The man is worth almost $US30 ($AU41) billion, so his advice is at least worth trying.

His technique is simple: respond as quickly as possible.

“Most of the best – and busiest – people we know act quickly on their emails, not just to us or to a select few senders, but to everyone,” he wrote in his 2014 book “How Google Works.”

Even if this is just with an emoji or two-word answer, Schmidt believes it’s better to respond quickly, rather than leave people waiting for a response. If an email requires greater thought, he’ll respond with a short reply letting them know that he’ll follow up.

Now it’s worth pointing out that my usual email technique is far from perfect.

Few emails I receive are genuinely urgent, but that still doesn’t stop them from becoming a distraction. I’ll find myself checking my email a few times a day – not really replying to any then flagging some for later – and as a result, I experience a near-constant anxiety that I’m neglecting my inbox.

Schmidt’s reply all-approach seemed like a way that I could kill both birds with the same stone, so I decided to spend a couple of hours putting it to the test.

1. I got through more than 100 emails an hour

After two hours, my unread total stood at 508 – I got through 260. How quickly you get through your inbox probably depends on who’s emailing you, and how important they are.

I gave most emails a one-sentence reply, thanking the sender, and saying I’d either follow up later or deal with their request there and then.

Few of the emails I answered required deep thinking or a lengthy response so I was able to cut through them fairly quickly. I also found it helpful to sort them into folders straight away.

2. I cheated, a little

I receive a lot of irrelevant pitches and approaches out of the blue from companies and PRs – some of these leave a lot to be desired.

If an email wasn’t addressed only to me, or would open a can of worms, I would ignore it. This made them easier to cut through.

This shortcut doesn’t follow Schmidt’s law to the letter but helped me cut through the deluge.

3. It made me feel productive, but maybe this is a con

The other benefit was in alleviating my inbox anxiety.

I could see the total steadily dropping and I felt like I was being productive. Whether I actually was or not is a matter for discussion, but I no longer had a perpetual dread that people might think I’m rude for not replying.

It would be hard to argue that an hour spent responding largely to non-urgent emails represented meaningful work. It helped me jot down a couple of potential feature ideas, but – were it not for this story – left me with little in terms of real output.

4. Emails beget more emails

It did nothing to relieve the fact that emails remain incredibly distracting. In fact, by replying to some that I otherwise would have ignored, it encouraged more emails to pop into my inbox.

Something else strange happened: I found myself subconsciously cutting punctuation, capitalization, and space from my emails in an effort to economize my time. I even pressed send on a couple that I knew contained spelling errors.

That’s OK for a quick thank you but not for a thoughtful reply.

Overall, it’s a good method for chomping through daily emails, but probably doesn’t work as a specific technique for cutting through a backlog that has accumulated over a week. It was intense and ultimately led to more work.

If you’re chasing inbox zero, it’s helpful. If you’re after a productivity boost, my conclusion is that it’s best to just let them accumulate.