Farewell email overload: a 7-step methodology to prioritize incoming emails

Email overload has a well-documented impact on focus, stress, and productivity overall. While its impact on productivity is noticeable, its stress-inducing characteristics are less discussed. Employees and academics can get overwhelmed by the fast pace and the sheer volume of emails they receive daily. They need to react quickly and often face the fear of missing out on critical communications.

Studies have demonstrated adverse effects of email overload, including feelings of isolation, anxiety, and loss of control; longer workdays; faster pace of work; task fragmentation; and even email addiction (Alberts, 2013 ; Chase & Clegg, 2011 ; Jerejian, Reid, & Rees, 2013 ; Marulanda-Carter & Jackson, 2012). Alberts’s (2013) qualitative study revealed that employees felt a loss of control in managing email, psychological pressure to respond quickly to email messages, and fear of missing important information communicated by email.

Managing Email Overload in the Workplace | Kim McMurty, August 2014.

QUANTIFYING THE IMPACT OF EMAIL OVERLOAD

Email overload has several impacts on productivity. It’s hard to quantify them since the usage and emails habits vary with each company and individuals. Yet some effects are now documented:

  • Interruption effect: It takes in average 64 seconds for an individual to return to its work after an email interruption. Considering that an average worker checks its email 15 times a day, that’s already a quarter of an hour gone daily.
  • Information Deficiency: Emails are quite often imprecise, with misleading subject lines (if any) or just too ambiguous. It leads to more back and forth in the best case scenario or pieces of information getting overlooked.
  • Managing emails: Considering the sheer amount received, emails can take a while to process. The figure of the time spent daily to deal with emails vary among individuals, industries, and estimations. Depending on the source, we’re talking about one to several lost hours of work daily: 2.5 h according to Forbes, 17h per week according to Carleton University

THE NEED FOR SOUND EMAIL HABITS

Several options are available to save oneself from email overload. Some people focus on the tools; other have a field-tested process to sort through the flood. Even the best tools can’t fix bad habits, so the answer is not unanimous. The solution we propose involves a healthy mix of both.

In this article, we’ll focus on the good practices you can have so that accessing your mailbox won’t be stressful anymore, it might even become fun! We wish, but we’re talking about emails here, sorry. Since the tools you can use to enforce these habits are often service-specific, we kept them for other articles.

Source: Dilbert Comics

The good news with these habits is that they are service-agonistic. Whatever your email service provider or client, you’ll be able to enforce them: they rely on essential features that are available everywhere. So what are these valuable email habits? Here is a quick overview of the most impacting one:

A 7 STEPS METHODOLOGY

Having solid email habits will make it much easier to sort them through as it reduces the raw size of the pile you’ll have to process. They will only take you so far; sorry to disappoint, but there are no miracle solutions to our email overload issue.

What we do have are processes to sort through the mess efficiently. We organized it in 7 distinct steps themselves regrouped in three high-level categories for clarity. Let’s dive in!

A/ SCRAPING THE CLUTTER

Before we even get started with tips to sort and organize your inbox, the easiest is to reduce the number of incoming emails.

STEP 0: DO CLEAN THAT INBOX

Indeed, the first step and the most obvious one is often overlooked: reducing the number of emails you get every day. It takes 30 min to make a thorough clean of your inbox. It is worth it:

  • Are you really reading all the newsletters you’re subscribed to?
  • What about the emails from the apps you use, do you need all of them? Email settings can be granularly set up on most services now: don’t let Twitter spam you with every mention.
  • Any automated email you get must include options to let you unsubscribe or manage the contact frequency: make the most of this setting.

Yes, it’s a pain to go through all these unsubscribe and options now but think about the compounding time loss provoked by all the useless emails (to you at least) your receive every day. Your attention deserves better.

STEP 1: FILL THE BIN AND ARCHIVE

All email services come with a bin and a way to archive email yet many people overlook these features. Picture them as the first line of defense of your mailbox. Here is a simple three-step process:

  1. Was this email wanted? If not, check back Step 0 and delete it.
  2. Is the email a one-time thing (such as a password reset email)? If yes, process and delete; if the answer is no, you can keep going.
  3. Will you need the email for further reference? If no, you know the way: straight to the bin. If yes, you might want to tag it properly before you archive it. We’ll delve more into tagging into the step.

B/ SORTING THE MESS

Now that we’ve got the easy targets, it’s time to start sorting. Don’t worry; you’ll be done in barely three steps!

STEP 2: DON’T SIMPLY READ YOUR MAIL, PROCESS THEM

This step is more about changing your mindset when you check your emails. Going to a mailbox to read it is like going on Facebook “to check the feed”: a gateway to a time flush.

Instead, if you want to stay efficient while dealing with your email, you’ll have to approach the very act of checking your mailbox with an intent: processing them.

Depending on your profile, it will take different forms, what follows are only suggestions to give you a clearer idea of what we mean by that:

  • Dedicating specific time windows in your day to process email: one in the morning and one in the evening for instance. It helps you to make sure you don’t let emails eat up your working day.
  • Disabling email notifications: what’s the point of the above if you still get frequently interrupted? No emails require you to respond in the minute.
  • First process, then act: you can swipe through your mailbox a first time to trash the unnecessary ones, answer to the easy one and tag the one requiring more time. You’ll then be free to process the one needing more attention later.

STEP 3: THE 2MIN RULE

The 2min rule is a simple yet powerful concept. It isn’t specific to email, as it was formulated as a way to deal with incoming tasks but works perfectly within the email methodology we’re describing here.

It can be summed up as follows: do you need less than 2 minutes to deal with this mail? Do it now. Need more? Take the time now to plan when you will, or delegate it to someone that will do it for you.

STEP 4: ADVANCED SORTING WITH FOLDERS & FILTERS

Folders are probably the easiest tip to implement to sort your emails. Only you can decide what folders are the one you need, but the sweet spot seems to be around five folders. Some implement a thematic approach to folders (for instance work, project, personal, shopping, and services) while other create a flow based on the email status (action, waiting, archive). Both works, pick whatever fits you the most.

Manual sorting is useful, but it gets even better when you automate the process. We’ll address it with our next tip.

MAKE USE OF THE + SIGN

Whatever your email provider is, you can add + anything to your email address (before the @). For instance, Bob can receive emails sent to bob.mcbobby+test@gmail.com on his bob.mcbobby@gmail.com address. What’s the point? Well, it can tremendously help you to sort through the mess, here are some ideas:

  • youremail+news@provider.com for newsletters
  • youremail+social@provider.com – social networks emails
  • youremail+ecom@provider.com for the shopping websites you register to
  • youremail+official@provider.com – official/legal services

If you’re thorough in your use of the + sign, sorting your mailbox will be effortless as you’ll be able to use the receiving addresses to filter it. For instance, emails sent to youremail+news@provider.com can be automatically moved to the Newsletter folder. This is a very good practice to implement in a new mailbox.

C/ AVOID ADDING TO THE NOISE

Now that you have the basics to sort your inbox, would you like to become a responsible email citizen? Reducing the noise for your coworkers, clients or prospects will not only make their life much more relaxed but also yours! Ultimately, email noise affects everybody from the sender to the recipient and even the CCs and BCCs!

STEP 5: EFFECTIVE WRITING

Be economical: the less you talk, the more people will be willing to listen to you. Let’s consider the two following personas (any resemblance to your colleagues is pure coincidence):

  1. Loquacious Bob: he will reply to pretty much any email, and offer many details. He’ll tell you all about how your email made him feel, what he has planned for dinner and if you’re lucky you might find a little piece of information buried in the fluff.
  2. Laconic Eva: she doesn’t talk much, but when she does it’s for real. She’s not the kind of person who mixes her personal and professional life so when you see an incoming email from Eva you know it’s not yet another quiche recipe.

Who are people the most willing to listen to? Without hesitation we would all give more attention to Laconic Eva: she understood that attention is a scarce resource and respects her readers/listeners. In technical terms, we could say that Eva has a low signal-to-noise ratio (-> less noise) while Bob’s is going through the roof.

When it comes to professional emails, reply-all is like the nuclear option: it should be only considered if you are certain it is necessary.

So here are three questions to answer before dropping the bomb:

  1. Do you really need anyone included in the parent email to hear what you have to say? A world of possibilities exists between the Reply and Reply All: select your recipients responsibly.
  2. Is the conversation about a major issue or a decision? If yes, replying all to it will probably land to more back and forth.
  3. Is email the best medium for this conversation? If not, you’ll be better off scheduling a meeting or a call to deal with it.

STEP 6: ACTION-ORIENTED WRITING

When you do answer an email, think about the action you are trying to achieve. For instance, if you are offering a meeting, don’t just propose it: it calls for the unnecessary when/where are you available? answer. Instead, you could make your reply instantly actionable by suggesting three time windows when you’ll be available and a location. Your recipient could then “close the meeting” in one single response if the place and time are a fit.

MAKE USE OF LISTS

Keep your email actionable: use numbered lists. Lists are awesome as they force you to organize your thoughts concisely. Moreover, they will facilitate referencing your email in the reply since the replier can mention the third item or even just 3/ instead of Monday's discussion with the marketing team regarding the pricing strategy.

To go one step further, you could try, whenever possible, to split your list into two categories: the information flow and the action flow. The information flow is things you want to communicate while the action flow requires action from the recipient: if you’re asking him a question for instance, or delegating a task.

TOWARDS INBOX ZERO?

We hope this email sorting processes overview will help you keep your inbox tidy, or even find the grail of Inbox Zero. What is it, you may ask?

Inbox Zero is a very strict approach to email management in which the goal is to keep your inbox empty, or as empty as it can be, at all time. The concept was introduced by Merlin Mann at a Google Tech Talk (the slides are here).

Inbox Zero might be for the purist: it may be more an ideal than an absolute goal. What is certain is that inboxes greatly benefit from tidiness. Remember the compounding time loss we mentioned at the beginning of the article? Wouldn’t you future you thank you for taking a couple of hours today to set up a process to slash it down? Don’t let tomorrow-you decide.

Originally published at gwapit.com on September 25, 2018.


Farewell email overload: a 7-step methodology to prioritize incoming emails was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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