Interview by Jaclyn Schiff

Email is a non-negotiable part of everyday life. For some, it’s an unruly time suck, but enlightened email users have systems to ensure they’re not a slave to the inbox. We’re asking smart thinkers to give us a peek inside their inboxes, share tips, ideas, gripes, and everything in between.

This week, we chat with The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey who covers how faith intersects with the issues of the day. As a busy reporter, email is a big part of Bailey’s day. She discusses how Canned Responses help her stay on top of things and why she’s not intimidated to hit “Mark as Read.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have a system for managing your inbox?
Kind of. I make sure that anything unread is something I need to do or respond to or some kind of action item. I don’t know if that’s the best approach, but it works for me.

Sometimes I use the starring system in Gmail, and that’s a way to keep track of one particular project, or if I have one story I’m working on and I have a topic that I’m working on, I’ll star all the emails that I need so I can go back and find them easily. I star any kind of travel thing so that if I’m boarding a flight or getting on a bus or a train, I can find that pretty easily.

In Gmail, I find the Promotions and Social tabs pretty helpful. I tend to click through Social and Promotions and scroll through the headlines and make sure there’s nothing in there I need to know, and then I [select all and] hit Mark as Read. I know some people find that sort of nerve-wracking, but I find it helpful just to kinda skim through headlines and then get to actual emails that are addressed to me.

I also use Canned Responses. I handle submissions for a site that I run for The Washington Post called, “Acts of Faith.” Often I get submissions that very clearly won’t work for us. So I have a canned response for that because I just don’t need to take a lot of time to write personalized, individual responses to every single person who is submitting them.

People in PR often are looking for a response, or the more aggressive ones will send you a follow-up email. If I know the person in public relations, I’ll send a quick response, “Thanks for your email. If I’m able to cover this, we’ll be in touch.”

It’s really about email survival, right, because we’re able to email each other and contact each other with such ease now. I’m trying to find ways to field those emails with respect and acknowledgement. But also, my time is valuable, and I can’t spend all day writing very personalized responses to every email I get.

Do you have a go-to person, website, or some other source that you rely on for email tips, like the Canned Responses?

I feel like my husband is always asking, “Did you know you can do this in Gmail?” Sometimes, I’ll read a blog post like, “10 tips to optimize your email.” Every once in awhile, I get on a kick of wanting to optimize my life. And so, you know, I’ll read stuff like “How to do Email Better,” “How to be More Efficient With Your Mornings” or something like that.

If you had to estimate, how much time do you think you’re spending on email per day?

It’s kind of like Facebook and Twitter and all these different tabs that I have constantly open on my browser. I’m surfing around it a lot throughout the day, but I wouldn’t say I spend an hour or two hours on it necessarily.

It’s perpetually open for better or for worse. And so I may not be actively dealing with things in my email, but I’m aware if somebody sends me an email. Sometimes, as a reporter, I’ll get information or get a new tip or something or a newsletter, and I just wanna skim over it and make sure I’m not missing something big.

I also use Gchat a lot. I Gchat with people throughout the day, and so that’s why it’s kind of always open.

What’s your worst thing about email? What’s the area of Gmail most rife for development?
One thing that just frustrates me — and I think this is why things like Google Docs and Slack have developed — is when you’re in a group chain, it just gets insane, and unmanageable. [Email] isn’t a very collaborative tool. We have these massive email chains at The Washington Post. We have a group email for everyone who’s on the White House team, everyone who’s on the environment team, everyone who’s on the health team. And I just feel that’s just incredibly inefficient.

Has sending out your own newsletter given you a different perspective on email from the user perspective?

What I worry about is how much email volume we’re all getting. We’re all trying to consume as much information as possible.

Honestly, I started the newsletter for my family, and then just put the link out there. It’s just So I started it for my family and then I tweeted it out, put it on Facebook, and had a couple hundred subscribers join pretty fast. I realized, “Oh, okay, I guess there’s an audience for this. Okay, fine. I’ll do this.”

So it’s just really a way for people who are looking for the kind of articles that I am writing. They want articles about faith in their inbox every once in awhile. But, yeah, we just have a lot of emails coming at us, and we’re all trying to read at a rate that I think is kind of crazy.

With all this flood of content, how do you make sure you get to the must-reads?

I use Pocket. It’s like Instapaper. I have a button on my browser that’s to the right of my URL box. And so if I’m on, The New Yorker or whatever, and I say, “Oh, this is too long to read now,” I click the Pocket button. I’m living in New York City, so I’m in the subway a lot. If I’m stuck in the subway for, you know, 20 minutes or whatever, it’s a good chance to open my Pocket browser, open the article, and scroll through it.

Any final thoughts on email?

It’s amazing to me. I joined Gmail over 10 years ago, and it’s just amazing to me how it still dominates the email landscape. Like when I was first joining email, I had Juno, and all my friends were split between Yahoo and Hotmail, but it just seems like everyone sort of merged into Gmail. I know there are downsides to it, but it’s been pretty consistently good.

I am not happy with how they changed Gchat recently, but, you know, that’s another story.

It seems like Facebook Messenger has taken the place of Gchat with some groups. Is that your perception?

I took Facebook off my phone because I felt like it was the most distracting thing for me in keeping me from my goals. I took Facebook and Messenger off my phone. I also didn’t like how Messenger had some ridiculous requirements in their policies. So I don’t have Messenger on my apps on my phone. So that probably makes a big difference for me. I have Google Chat on my phone. But you find different people in different places.

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