Overcoming Email Overload

Overcoming Email Overload

Here’s something you can really use…an email about how to manage your email.  Dealing with email is getting harder and harder. Email consumes an average of 13 hours per week per information worker and is often intimately intertwined with document workflow, sales, scheduling, and other business processes. Fact from IDC Press Release. And that’s just the necessary email for work.

When I worked in the corporate world, it was the norm for me to receive 200 to 300 emails a day, and most of it required action. That’s just insane! Even my normal 100/day is still a challenge to manage.

“Empty email in-boxes” are a myth for most people. But there are strategies that you can start using TODAY that will help you not feel like you are drowning in email.

The real trick is to simplify your inbox so that it only presents you with items that are important enough to require you actually reading and responding to them. If you have ADD or if you easily fall into rabbit holes (also called screen sucking), the more random but potentially interesting stuff you can remove from your immediate attention, the more likely it is that you’ll actually get something important done. If you follow these steps below, you’ll find yourself doing less email and more fun stuff, on or off the computer.

  1. Use your spam and junk filters.  Almost every email program (network-based or client-based) has these filters.  Make sure they are turned on so that most of your junk never reaches your inbox.
  2. Check your junk and spam folders daily and delete items.  You’ll be surprised at what is not actually junk, and you can reset your email programs to allow for it.  Deleting junk daily will save space and allow your computer to operate better.
  3. Feel like you are doing a lot of “screen sucking”, and not sure where your time goes?  Turn on a timer (try http://www.timeleft.info  or  http://www.harmonyhollow.net/cool_timer.shtml ) and see if you can limit yourself to a block of time, whether that is 10 minutes or 2 hours, each person’s limit will be different.
  4. Just like you have a home filing system that includes active, reference, and archived folders, make sure that you have folders set up to hold your email.  You might consider your inbox to be your active pile, but check to see if this is really true.  If your in-box has more than 50 items in it, it functions more like a bottomless pile of paper than a true active folder.
  5. If you have a client-based email program (another way to say that you open email from your computer, not from the web), you can sometimes point more than one network or web-based email address to your email program.  You might need to get help from your email provider to do this, but that means that all of your mail will come to one screen on your computer, and you only have to check that one place.
  6. Do you receive mail from sources that aren’t quite junk but you don’t actually read very often?  I can’t quite bring myself to get off the Home Depot mailer, but I don’t always read their newsletter.  Set up a folder called “Newsletters” and for the next week, establish a RULE in your email that automatically moves newsletters FROM a named source over to this folder without ever going to your inbox.  The rules act similar to a spam filter, except that you create the rule parameters.  Then you can occasionally review all those great offers that you received and pick the ones you want to open. It also makes it super easy to purge regularly, since these types of offers are only good for a short time, and can be purged in bulk.  I only keep offers from the last month and send a huge chunk to my electronic recycle bin every month.
  7. Set up reference folders for projects, committees, conferences, trips, finances, clients, and vendors, just like you would have in your file cabinets.  Move emails out of your inbox and into reference folders immediately upon reading so they don’t stack up in your inbox.
  8. Stop using your inbox as a to-do list.  If something is actionable, then make a note on your online or paper task list, and get working on it.  Set up a folder called “Waiting for” and move items that require follow up there.  This includes emails that someone should be responding to, items that you must attend to by a certain date, or items that you have ordered and are awaiting delivery.  Just like you would on a paper to-do list, search through this “Waiting for” file once a week to keep up on all of your outstanding items.
  9. If at all possible, take the last 5 minutes of your workday to review your sent emails and delete them or file a few that you might want to keep.  Sometimes you’ll file them in the “Waiting for” folder, so you can advance to the next step of a project.
  10. Do a lot of online shopping or posting?  Be sure to set up a Shopping folder to catch all those email order confirmations or eBay, CraigsList and Freecycle.org postings.
  11. Are you a member of any discussion groups, discussion boards, email loops, or similar groups?  Set up a rule to automatically filter those responses into a folder.  I have one for each professional organization that has such a list.  I keep up to date by looking at these posts once every other day or less.  That way, by the time I look at a discussion thread, there is an actual thread to follow and not just several random single thoughts.
  12. Recognize that by reading something, your brain has put a little “check” mark next to it, even if you didn’t take action on it.  So once you read something, don’t go back and mark it “unread” thinking that you’ll come back to it.  If you’ve read this far in the list, you know that you’ve got a problem keeping up, so either do it, transfer it to your to-do list and the Waiting folder, or set a rule to send these types of emails to a less distracting place, or just delete it, knowing the world will not end.
  13. For heaven’s sake, turn off that little ping that tells you an email just came in.  Most of what comes in is not more important than what you are working on.
  14. My last tip is perhaps the hardest to do for some, especially those with mobile email.  Define when you will check your email, and stick to just one, two, or three times a day.  When you aren’t in email, turn it off and work on your work.  Experts agree that you will spend less time processing your email if you do it all in defined chunks, rather than responding as they come in throughout the day.  Set your schedule for responding to email, and if necessary, advise others.  For example, I usually do not check email before noon, because it is easy to “lose” two to three hours just trying to “catch up” with interesting emails that arrive while my computer is on.  Sound familiar?
  15. Practice the art of doing one thing at a time.  Multi-tasking is evil.  While it requires lots of practice for many of us, having a little soundtrack that says, “Let’s just finish this thing I’m working on before opening that next email,” is really helpful.  If you actually want to be able to check off some real tasks on a daily basis, let yourself breathe and get through one item at a time.
  16. Remember, for most of us, time equals money, even when it comes to mythical “free time”.  So in March, the month of green, learn a trick or two and come out ahead on both.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Marsha Egan

    For #7 – file items right away in subject folders. Definitely! But ONLY if they don’t require action on your part. I like to file them in my “Action Folder.” That way, there is one place to look for my email delivered “to do’s.” I also set a reminder for the important action stuff.

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