If your inbox gets inundated with emails, you are not alone. The problem is so pervasive that it has its own term: email overload. Some workers get hundreds or even thousands of emails a day, causing anxiety in even opening your inbox. Important correspondence goes unanswered or a disproportionate amount of time is wasted with email follow up. All of this eats into your ability to manage your own work and your team.
1. Identify Your Email Habits
Developing good email habits starts with determining how you currently manage email.
People who struggle with email volume typically fall into one of the categories below. By identifying how you use email you can shore up areas of needed improvement.
Do you identify with any of these email user types?
Fast responders – you respond right away to most or all emails. While you are reliably responsive, the time dedicated to email correspondence is detracting from your overall productivity.
Email savers – you respond quickly to most emails, but are inconsistent in deleting or filing emails. Not clearing out your inbox or using a filing system makes it difficult to track emails, pull information about emails at a later time, and can be stressful just seeing an ever-growing inbox.
Email ignorers – you rarely read or respond to emails. While you are not wasting time on emails and can focus on value-add work, you are missing out on important correspondence, which can frustrate your coworkers and subordinates and detract from your work product.
2. Triage Email: Delete, Respond or File
Properly prioritise your emails and you will have won at least half the battle on how to manage too many emails. Email overload is ultimately a function of deficient email management. Going back to the same email multiple times is a waste, the intent is to touch it once! Identify and rank emails as follows:
Priority and urgent: These emails will be immediately evident to you. The sender or the subject matter will jump out at you. Respond to these right away.
Important but not urgent: These emails require response or action, but not immediately. Schedule it in your calendar by creating a task with the email and respond at a designated and blocked off time for follow-up.
Not important or urgent: Delete emails that are not important and do not require a response.
Most email applications have a suite of features that facilitate email prioritisation, such as flagging, starring emails or even better creating action items. Filing and tagging systems also make it easy to retrieve emails for response or reference at a later time. Learning your email software and its tools will make you a far more effective email manager. Our Working Sm@rt with Outlook course highlights exactly how to manage your emails to reduce your inbox to zero emails!
3. Block and Unsubscribe from Unwanted Emails
Most email systems have a spam filter feature that will automatically detect unwanted, mass emails. Emails that make it through the spam filter can be tagged as spam and in the future will be sent to the junk box.
Additionally, you may want to unsubscribe from email lists that you are not using. At the bottom of emails sent in mass via servers is an unsubscribe button. Simply hit this link, and if taken to an option screen, select the types of emails you want to receive from this sender – in most cases it will be “unsubscribe from all.”
If all else fails, you can block emails from specific addresses. Keep in mind that unscrupulous emailers may change their addresses frequently so this is not a fail-safe method. Also, blocking means you will not receive any correspondence from this sender, and in some cases you may need some correspondence from this sender, such as purchasing or shipping alerts.
4. Block Time for Email Correspondence
Responding to important emails is an essential task for all positions. Rather than feeling like email is controlling you, take steps to put yourself in control of it by setting aside time every day to answer emails.
Determine the time of day that is most productive for this task. Do not wait until evening when you are too tired, or do it sporadically throughout the day, which detracts from your focus.
For many people, email correspondence is performed first thing in the morning. Then you will have fresh eyes to answer many disparate inquiries, many of which are likely complex. Your recently-awoken mind is probably not your full thinning cap, so you are reserving the full might of your cognitive abilities for your most complicated, high-level work.
5. Choose the Best Communication Tools
Email is only one method for communicating. In recent years instant messaging has gained prominence in the workplace. Chat applications allow for rapid exchanges that are highly efficient when properly applied. Chats are the preferred vehicle for getting instant answers to questions of concern, or guidance on roadblocks. Chat channels can be general or highly specific, making it easy to identify the subject or to pull information at a later time.
When used for these and similar purposes, instant messaging can reduce email inundation. Of course, if chat becomes a full replacement for email, then the team runs the risk of having instant messaging overload.
To maximise efficiency with communications, departments are well advised to create communications best practices. This includes establishing when to use email versus chat, and expectations around how channels are set up, when and how people respond, and other forms of information sharing.
Communications best practices will also set expectations around online and in-person meetings, and the scenarios when these are more beneficial than written communications.
By establishing communications best practices, optimising the use of different communications methods, and applying the email overload minimising tips above, email will become less of a chore and more of what it should be – a tool that makes you more effective and productive.
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