Managing email overload

Today marked my first official day of working from home. As part of my flextime and telecommuting work arrangement, I check my office email and voice mail from home to ensure urgent matters get my attention.

But once I logged into my email account, I got caught up in the minutiae. I spent too much time emailing about things that could wait.

I soon realized that if I wanted to get real work done, I had to log off and focus on my priorities. If my immediate attention was needed, someone from the office would call.

With the rise in social media, IM, texting and the like, some say email is dead. But take a look at your inbox and you’ll see that email is still alive and well.

No need to walk down the hall to see your colleague, pick up the phone to talk to your supplier, or pay postage to send forms to your client. Within nanoseconds, you can exchange messages and documents electronically with a person sitting a cubicle away or across the globe.

Handheld devices like iPhones and Blackberrys make it easier to check emails any time, anywhere, even when you’re on vacation or lying in bed.

When email overload becomes a problem, here are 5 steps to manage it: 

1)  Stop the influx at its source.  Get yourself removed from email newsletters and group lists that don’t add value for you, personally or professionally. Set up a spam filter if you don’t have one. This will help reduce the amount of junk email that lands in your inbox.

2)  Process your email.  Don’t just check, scan or read your email. Take action with your messages instead of hoard them for days, months or years.

I regret to say that the number of emails in my inbox is in the five-figure range. I have tons of email clutter because I am horrible at processing.

Treat your email differently. Use the Do, Delegate, Delete or Defer method. Or the File, Act or Trash method.

Deleting or trashing is a quick, easy way to reduce your email bulk. Glance at the “subject” and “from” lines and delete emails that aren’t worth reading. Once you read an email, decide what to do with it. Respond to it, delete it, or file it in a clearly-labeled folder that you can readily access later. Trash it if you haven’t touched it in months.

3)   Block time for email. You could set aside 30 to 45 minutes – once in the morning, in the middle of the day, in the afternoon, and at the end of the day – to process your email. Or you could block 15 minutes of every hour for email.

Play with your time slots to see what works for you. Block time to focus on sending emails and replying to emails. If an email contains useful links or attachments that may be read later, file it. When your time is up, move on to your top projects.

Don’t feel pressured to reply within minutes when it’s okay to respond within a few hours. If someone needs an immediate answer, he or she can (and will) call you.  You need email-free times during the day to get big things done.

4)  Switch off your auto-notification.  If you hear a ding or see a visual alert every time an email comes in, you’ll be tempted to stop what you’re doing to check your inbox.

You and I are addicted to this distraction. But most of the stuff that comes in daily is worthless junk and kills output.

Turning off the ding or visual alert will help you stay in the flow and avoid unnecessary distractions. If you block time for email, you don’t need the auto-notification. Attend to email when you’re ready to process it – don’t let it control you or your agenda.  

5)  Use proper email etiquette. Provide a clear subject line and keep your email as short as possible. Use headings, subheadings, and numbered bullet points to make your message easier to digest.

Know that email in not effective for back-and-forth chatting. If you need to arrange a meeting, choose an exact time and place or make a suggestion (e.g., “Let’s meet at 9 a.m. in the conference room”) instead of ask open-ended questions (e.g. “When should we meet?”).

Use “reply to all” or “forward” sparingly. Don’t send a response if the email doesn’t call for it. Pause before you hit “send.”

Meet face to face or use the phone to discuss sensitive or complicated issues. Email does not capture tone and is often misinterpreted. If you find yourself going back and forth on email, it’s probably time to see or call the person.

*  *  *

I have a long way to go with practicing all five steps. I am on email group lists that have nothing to do with me or my work. Despite lots of deleting and trashing, I still have monstrous email clutter. I send and reply to way too many emails.

But I have switched off my auto-notification and I am getting better at blocking time for email.

I am noticing that these steps are great for managing email overload.  Try them and experience the difference for yourself.


# # #

Photo by: RambergMediaImages