Image ‘email overload’ by VectorStory / Deposit Photos
The two biggest bugbears of contemporary working life are meetings and emails. We wade through a swamp of the former and are regularly overwhelmed by a torrent of the latter. The volume of email is mind-boggling: Palo Alto tech firm Radicati predicts 269 billion emails will be sent in 2017 (business + consumer). And let’s be honest, we’re not just doing emails at work: there’s evidence we’re emailing whilst watching TV, working out, in bed, and of course on holiday.
1. Turn off notifications
You are not Pavlov’s dog. Although many of us seem to be headed that way when it comes to email notifications from our phone / tablet / laptop. FOMO kicks and we just have to find out what it’s about. Every time we do this, we’re allowing ourselves to be distracted from something that, almost inevitably, is much more important and a far more appropriate use of our time. The sender probably has no idea what you were doing before the notification distracted you, and if they needed an instant response they would probably have contacted you via other means.
2. Set up systems to sort it
Most email isn’t urgent: some can wait for hours, some for days or even longer. A lot of email is just ‘we thought you’d like to know about this…’ stuff. Some people use elaborate systems of colour-coding, or lots of folders – but the key thing is to reduce the amount of it in your inbox, staring you in the face the whole time. Emails aren’t all equally urgent. You can probably skim read many of them some other time. Most email systems let you set up rules or filters to send emails from certain senders / about particular topics straight to a folder (or trash), skipping your inbox. You’ll be able to see when there’s something new in the folder and read it when it suits you (I like my holiday bargain emails, but they can wait until the weekend. Or never).
3. Vary the medium
If you’re constantly doing email, there’s a real risk that you’re not doing Your Actual Job. You know, coming up with ideas, building strong professional relationships, pushing projects along, staying on top of the data, especially the finances… Email isn’t your job, it’s merely a tool to do the job – and it may not always be the best one. Alternatives? Make a quick (video) call. Go and see someone. Or schedule and send a meeting request for a quick team catch-up at the end of the day about xyz. Step out for a conversation over coffee. A hand-written note can go a long way.
4. Deal with it in batches
Another way to help you focus on the work that really matters is to deal with email in short chunks of time. ‘Deal with’ may not mean ‘respond to’ – the idea here is to skim the senders and subject lines and decide which you need to skim read now. Then if it’s something you can deal with in a minute or two, do so. Or if the response is ‘I’ll have it done by close of business’, send that. Many emails can be dealt with really simply, and many more are just ‘FYI’ so be quick. Try three or four 20- or 15- minute bursts per day. Not sure how long you’re really taking? Try setting a timer. You’ll be surprised.
5. Not in the bathroom
You’re reading and responding to your emails whilst you’re in the bathroom – really? Apparently so, according to TechCrunch. There are reasons we go to the bathroom; one of which just might be to take a wee break (tee hee) – to get away from the loud banter, overpowering music/people, or simply to calm ourselves down before a tricky conversation. Or the obvious reason. But if you’re emailing from the throne, you just might have an addiction issue here. Please stop, if only for the hygiene hazards you’re running by doing this (don’t believe me? Take a hygiene wipe to your smartphone and see what you get…)
6. Send better email
A great way to set an example for your worst email offenders (you know, the person who takes three emails to say one thing, because they’ve been hitting ‘send’ as each thought occurs to them) is to send better email yourself. My top tip is to use your subject line wisely, specifying if ‘action needed by XX’, ‘please read before tomorrow’s meeting’ or ‘FYI’, ‘for your approval by XX’. Keep emails short and use layout tools to make them easy to skim read. For more, see my post on writing emails that get read.
7. Send less email
As we’re all sending and receiving more and more of the stuff, one thing you can do to start reducing the load is to stop and think before you hit ‘reply’ (let alone ‘send’). Is yet another email really the best way to respond to this? Is a response actually required? Can it wait until that meeting, or a chance encounter in the kitchen?
Still not convinced you need to get smarter with email? Try The Washington Post’s very depressing calculator to see just how much of your career you will spend on email.
You may find this blog post useful: ‘10 tips to help you stop procrastinating’.
Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’, available now at bookstores and on Amazon.