It’s official: emails are awful. They may be a great way of communicating across a business, but the medium is also flawed – far too many of them are sent every day. Radicati, a market research firm, estimates that 281 billion emails are sent worldwide each day.
Email overload has been termed a “global epidemic” by Sanebox, with workers across the world spending as much as 28% of their week reading and responding to emails. That’s not far off a third of the working week, and in productivity terms, it can be a killer.
Other research has similarly worrying findings for UK workers: 40% of employees receive up to 75 emails each day, and 45% of employees respond to emails outside of work hours due to the volume of emails received.
With so much time spent on emails, it’s no wonder that productivity is suffering. Learning how to manage emails is a learning curve, but an important one which can put you back in control.
Inbox Zero is corporate Nirvana. It is the point at which you have no emails in your inbox. It sounds far off and unachievable, but with a systematic and thorough approach, you can reach enlightenment.
It is not mass deletion, contrary to the dramatic name (but you will need to mass delete if you have hundreds of unread emails, in order to make this a manageable task). With an understanding of how to deal with your emails, you can set some organisation against the chaos.
The main goal is to carry out a determined action depending on the importance of any email you receive. Think of emails as items on a to-do list and the folders as the checkmark that demonstrates you’ve completed a task.
The idea being that items come into your inbox and are filed as you deal with them. This methodical approach helps to keep things manageable.
Before you start, you need to put the email somewhere to mark it as complete and get it out of your inbox. Create the following folders, and then file the email appropriately:
- Actions. These are things that you need to do that are important or urgent.
- Awaiting Response. This is for work that will fall under Actions in the future, but you need more information about before starting.
- Delegated. Self-explanatory; the folder for tasks that have come to you but are best carried out by someone else.
- Archived. Once you have completed a task, archive the emails. You can always refer to them later if needed.
Next, you need to identify the following two things: the action required by any given email, and the best way to execute the action. This will help you to file your emails appropriately. Follow these principles:
- Reply in timely fashion. If you can reply in two minutes or less, do it, then pop it in Awaiting Response.
- Reply slowly. If you can’t respond in two minutes or less, then you need to take your time. Flag this and file it in your Actions folder, to be followed up with more thought. Once you’ve dealt with it, file it in Awaiting Response.
- Delegate appropriately. If you’re not best placed to deal with an email request, send it to the person in your team who is. Forward on, then file under Delegated.
- Archive. Once a task or project is completed, you can safely Archive or Delete the emails related to it.
In the digital age, it’s too easy to hoard information on the off-chance it may be useful in the future. If an email is irrelevant to you, delete it. If you’re not interested in it, delete it.
Deleting an email isn’t permanent; it will sit in the trash folder. Remember, if you need something, you can always find it again. Don’t be sentimental, just go through the process.
Bonus points go to those who commit to additional organisation. If you are subscribed to newsletters, for example, store them in a sub-folder within Actions until you have time to read them.
Clarity and conciseness in communication
One of the things which drives email overload is bad habits, and one of the worst habits is misusing email.
Whether it’s used for personal chat or to shirk tough conversations, responding under pressure with inaccurate information, using the “reply all” function, poor grammar or spelling… there are several things which make emailing unbearable.
Knowing whether email is the most appropriate channel for communication is an important first step; if not, then don’t use it. If you can speak to someone by phone or in person, or via alternative instant messaging channels (like Slack or Skype), then do so.
If you must use email, focus on being clear and concise. We’re all guilty of using jargon and clichés when talking to colleagues, but if it’s not making communication clear then it doesn’t serve a purpose.
Clarity and conciseness go hand in hand. Drop formality with the colleagues you interact with the most to keep emails more manageable. Where a response needs more than a few sentences, think about how you can best structure and format a message so that it isn’t painful to read through. Including links and attachments where appropriate can reduce the amount of text that people need to read.
Zen and the art of not multitasking
There is a growing body of opinion on multitasking and its efficacy as a way of working; increasingly, it looks like it’s a bad way to work.
Some research has found that multitasking actually undermines our efficiency, so that working on several tasks at once means we’re not working at all.
Another study claims that emails are disruptive, taking an employee “an average of 64 seconds to resume the task interrupted by email”. The same study also cites lowered productivity and increased stress caused by email activity.
To avoid negative consequences, avoid multitasking and focus on getting organised. Use the Inbox Zero approach and combine it with windows of email access during the day instead of continual monitoring of your inbox.
Allow for periods around 30-45 minutes to read and respond to emails. When you’re done, close the application and get your head back in the zone. The idea is to streamline the way you work, keeping on top of emails while also giving you intensely focused periods to concentrate on other tasks.
Finally, it’s important to highlight that bad email practice affects whole businesses, not just individuals. If several people suffer from email overload, there may be underlying systemic issues such as work-life balance, poor communication, or even misuse of communication platforms.
It’s best to remember that emails aren’t always the best medium– pick up the phone or have a chat face-to-face where possible to keep the message, and your head, clear.