Taming the Email Monster

In what seems like just a few short years, email has changed from being a blessing for quick communications to a productivity sapping monster. Why has this happened, and what can we do about it? I have found an approach that works for me. It might help you.

I recently did an analysis of my email activity. I looked at 12 months of email, in my four primary accounts: office email, family and close friends, and two “general” email accounts which handle my remaining friends and a lot of newsletters and other personal items. In total, excluding spam, I received just over 50,000 emails in the 12-month period, or about 137 emails for every day in the year. I was shocked. I really thought the number would be much lower.

So I looked at the data more closely. I found that I had responded to about 70 percent of the incoming emails. The ones that did not get a response were newsletters, notices of things like utility bills, and inter-office list-emails with things like weekly reports attached. But that still meant I had sent roughly 96 replies every day for 365 days!

Looking at just the replies, it was apparent that almost 30 percent were me forwarding an email with a comment like “for your reference” or “I agree.” But still, I had sent around 62 longer replies a day, all year! I did not try to calculate the time this cost, but it would have been a lot.

Taming the Beast

I know I am not alone in feeling swamped by a tsunami of email. I see people surreptitiously answering emails in meetings, and I see them doing the same in conferences and seminars; both are times when a break in concentration can mean missing something important.

It has taken a few months to straighten this mess out. I am not going to claim that my changed approach will be ideal for everyone, but I do suspect that I am not alone in needing to cope with an over-abundance of email, so perhaps some of the changes I have made will help you, if you are similarly afflicted.

My first step was to trim the number of email newsletters I receive. I quickly realized I was receiving some newsletters and barely reading them; whatever caused me to subscribe has changed and I am not much interested any more. That cut out a bit of the reading.

My next step was to get my email organized. By that I mean, finding ways to automatically sort inbound email that would let me focus on the important stuff first. Each of the email client software packages I use has some kind or sorting capability. Gmail is quite good, Apple Mail in its native form is more limited (I use Apple devices at home and on the road). For me the key has been to identify senders, filter their messages into individual or group folders, and then arrange those folders in descending order, from most to least important. That way, I see the important (to me) stuff first.

Finally, I decided that I could not let email rule my day. I am usually up quite early and find I am very productive in the early morning when the house is quiet. So I avoid the temptation to instantly open and check my email. Instead I get an hour or two of concentrated work done. I now open my office email mid-morning and try to deal with as many emails as I can in 30 concentrated minutes, working top-down my sorted list. After 30 minutes, I close the email client and get back to work. I do a second 30-minute session early afternoon, and a third shortly before the office closes. Late on Friday I invest a bit more than 30 minutes in the office account, trying to clear anything I did not deal with earlier in the week.

My commute is miserable (the freeway has been constantly under construction for about two years), so when I get home from work, I’m not looking for something requiring lots of concentration. Twenty or thirty minutes is given then to dealing with the typically social emails from family and close friends. If there is time, I also take a look at and try to answer some of the email in the “general” accounts.

At some point each Saturday, I spend a little more time on those two “general” email accounts, and can usually clear whatever remains in them.

Does it Work?

I have been working to this new system for nearly three months. I feel a lot less stressed about email today than I did when I started the change. There are still some things I think worth trying to fix: I get copied in on too many emails, and perhaps 10 percent of the in-office emails are not really necessary (those are the ones asking a question which, if the author of the email had spent a few minutes mulling over, she could have answered without dashing off the question).

As I said earlier, I don’t claim my system will work for everyone. But if you feel overloaded with email and find yourself constantly checking your mail on your computer, cellphone, or whatever device is at hand at the moment, do yourself a favour and do what I did: invest some time in thinking about how to tame the beast so that reading and answering email is not an all-day-every-day process.

The Next Big Problem

If email was not onerous enough, many of us now have smartphones with “instant” messaging (IM) apps on them. IM can fast become something like being buzzed on the intercom every few minutes. I do nor get many, thankfully, because I discourage friends and family from using IM during office hours unless it is really important. But I see lots of people being frequently interrupted by their phones buzzing with incoming IMs, and wonder at the impact this has on their ability to concentrate. I know of some workplaces that have banned IM activity entirely; I know of others where it is being used as a replacement for in-office email. I’m just glad it is not a problem I have to deal with.

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