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Escaping Email Overload

Posted on the 08 June 2011 by Caryschmidt

Escaping Email Overload

Not long ago I was asked to teach a staff meeting on managing email. Rather than prepare a lengthy meeting loaded with “helpful tips” I chose instead to make it quick and simple. We had a fifteen minute talk on the top three best and worst email practices. This not only made the meeting short (which everybody loves, right) but it also made me focus on what I considered the essential email habits. So I thought I would share them here.


These principles are given in the context of work-related email—the goal being to have the most efficient work day and to help others have the most efficient work day possible. This does not apply to personal emails—which I happen to greatly appreciate with family, friends, and co-workers. NOTE: Do NOT be afraid to email me after you read this! I appreciate hearing from you!

In the work environment, email is not designed or best used as an instant messaging tool. In some work environments, especially those where people are at the same desk all day, this may be effective. But it’s not safe to assume that everybody lives in this “instant messaging” email world. In reality, most people do not view email as an immediate means of instant communication. With that said, here’s what I believe to be the top three best email practices, in regards to work email management:

1. Limit How Often You Check Email

Constant email interruption means you really can’t focus for more than a few moments. If your work world is surrounded by bells, buzzers, vibrations, and discharges of electrocution alerting you to new emails, you are constantly being thrown off course. This is draining more from your personal productivity than you realize. There is no perfect formula for “how often” to check email, but it is imperative that you set the agenda if your job requires any amount of concentration for more than a few minutes at a time. Don’t let email constantly interrupt you.

2. Get to InBox Zero Regularly

InBox Zero is a familiar term in the business world that refers to plowing through and processing all the email in your in box until you are at zero. The mass build up of email in your inbox is depleting and inefficient in many ways. Again, there’s no formula, but there’s something powerful about dealing with all of your emails on a regular basis. The longer they build up, the more overloaded you feel.

The simple question with every email is this: is it actionable or not? If actionable, then I will respond or place that action on my task or project list and the related information somewhere I can reference it later. If an email is not actionable, then I can only reference or read it. If it’s something I need for later, I can file it and get on with the next email.

3. Maintain InBox Peace Daily

For most people, inbox zero is not going to be a daily practice. But I do believe that “inbox peace” should be. In other words, at the end of the work day, I should at least be aware of what’s sitting in my inbox and at peace that I can deal with it later. Often, it’s not what’s in our inboxes that keep us from disconnecting. It’s what MIGHT BE in our inboxes.

Now let’s move on to the worst three email practices, in regards to helping other people have an efficient work day.

1. Too Much Fluff

I love getting personal emails. I enjoy sending them. But in the work environment, communication moves faster and needs to be more efficient. Too often we confuse the two. What do you do, in your work world, when you get a long email? You probably scan it looking for what really matters. So, consider this when sending someone else a work-related email. Skip the formal greetings, introductory paragraphs, closing paragraphs, and other non-essential information. Your recipient will thank you for making your request  simple and easy to respond to.

2. Too Little Information

On the other end of the spectrum, often we send emails that don’t contain enough information to act clearly. What was clear in your mind may not have been communicated in the email. This can generate a chain of emails back and forth with questions and responses. Every now and then this happens to me. After about the eighth exchange, I finally think, “We just need to have a human conversation here.” A quick phone call usually saves ten more emails back and forth.

Another way to confuse people with too little information is to send an email to a group of people without clear lines of delegation—who is responsible for what. This is a great way for a lot of people to know about something that isn’t getting done. Everybody can assume that the others are following through.

3. Unnecessary Emails

Again, remember this is in the context of work email. There are two scenarios that come to mind. The first would be overusing the auto-reply feature. The only time auto-reply is really necessary is when you are away from your email long enough that I should not expect a response in a reasonable amount of time. Again, this doesn’t work if you operate in an instant-messaging email world. Most people who send you email don’t need to know that you’re at lunch or away from your desk for a few moments.

The second would be unnecessary replies. I recognize, many cases, an email deserves an acknowledgement, but in many cases there’s no need for a trail of “thanks…” “you’re welcome…” “I really appreciate it…” “no problem, anytime…” “have a great day…” “you too…” etc., etc.

The third unnecessary kind of email are those chain messages that are “really cute,” “really funny,” or “really serious” and forwarded to someone’s entire mailing list. I don’t know why I still feel guilty not reading, watching, listening to, or participating on those, but sometimes I do. Perhaps because it’s coming from someone I know personally. But somehow I have to remind myself that I’m NOT OBLIGATED to those unsolicited but “highly valuable” moments of entertainment!

What do you consider the best and worst email practices? Join the conversation below…

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