How do you apply The Principle of Relevance to an overflowing inbox? Managing information overload


I have been asked how to apply The Principle of Relevance to daily practical problems, and one of the main practical problems we all face is that of the daily management of our inbox. So how do you apply “The Principle of Relevance” to an overflowing inbox? How do you avoid wasting time by sending irrelevant emails?

The usual immediate reaction to an overload of email is trying to tackle each one in accordance with a principle of efficiency – getting more things done – which often translates into responding to everything.

However, as I discuss in The Principle of Relevance, when the brain is overloaded with data it tends to cut down on data gathering, jump to rapid conclusions, and respond immediately in an unconscious attempt to put an end to data overload.

This is how you find yourself either: (a) responding immediately to every email that loads your inbox as you read it, without noticing that a few unread emails later there is another email on the same subject that changes the question you have responded to, or (b) simply not reading emails until you think you have the time to answer.

Some people have in time implemented very personal methods, for example shifting to a different folder emails to which they are merely included in cc. These are reasonable criteria to use , although it may mean missing out on some relevant information that simply has been passed on to you in the wrong way.

The Principle of Relevance is based on two concepts: (1) Creative intake, or letting inputs come in; and (2) Deliberate action, or responding only to those inputs to which you choose to respond.

In practice, you can master this art by practicing the skill of reading all emails but refraining from responding unless and until you have gained a clear idea of all the information that you are meant to process, have processed it and have come to a conclusion. This requires discipline (we all have the instinct to respond immediately). Try the following steps tomorrow morning when you get to the office.

One: read everything. Two: eliminate unnecessary emails. Three: aggregate in one single place (a folder, a draft email, a word file) all the content of several emails received from different people or at different times that regards the same project or subject. Four: flag the emails you will respond to. Five: move the others to other folders. Six: answer.

Remember this is, more than anything else, an exercise of discipline.

Author: Stefania Lucchetti, Of Counsel at BonelliErede

Milan Area, Italy