6 Tips for Dealing Rationally with Excessive Email

Emails have a role to play in our lives, but it’s time we wrenched back some control and added a dash of common sense too.

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I have a coaching client with challenges around over commitment and workload. He had recently mismanaged a few projects and his personal brand in the company had been damaged. He was deeply troubled by this and wanted to do something different.

As it turns out, the 400-500 emails a day were a serious impediment to his productivity. He was spending several hours a day responding, or filing or putting them on his follow-up list. Because of the incoming emails, the follow-up list was unmanageable. He was dropping things before he even had the time to categorize them.

His experience is a common one. Email has become our corporate drug. And in truth, there is an upside to being busy with email. It’s one of the activities that give us a feeling of being productive. Most people find responding to email more productive that the average corporate meeting.

But no man is an island – we are very much products of our work environments. Our email deluge is a function of the organization approach to this tool.

I work with a senior IT team that is run by their email. The corporate culture is to copy every man and his dog in every email and in every reply. The volume of emails has become an epidemic affecting every person across the company. Not only is the volume of email an issue, but the company culture is to use email for some activities best suited to in person conversations. The senior team recently tried to brainstorm an important aspect of their work via email. Unsurprisingly, it was an abysmal failure.

Emails have a role to play in our lives, but it’s time we wrenched back some control and added a dash of common sense too. I firmly believe we do not need to be run by our inbox. Email can be a useful tool to get things done and we can choose to be in control.

Here are some tips to making your inbox your friend:

  1. Chunk time for email. See emails as a task to be done on a daily basis in one or perhaps two sittings. Set aside an hour for each email session. Deal with emails as they come in – respond, action or delete. This is one of the actions my clients find the most life changing.
  2. Turn off email at all other times. That means all notifications are off on all devices. Emails are hugely distracting as they dribble in the background as they rob us of our focus on the task at hand. Seeing as you aren’t going to respond to the email until your email session (see first point), there is no need to see what’s coming in.
  3. Create rules around copying – at least in your area of influence. Copying others in email can become a way of absolving people from responsibility. It’s also a lazy way of keeping someone in the loop. The consequences of copying are dire for the copied – they copied on full subsequent email chain that is mostly not relevant.
  4. Don’t read email on the walk to the next meeting, in the tube, or waiting in Starbucks. You are in passive/reactive mode at these times and all you succeed in doing is building on the list of things you need to get done without giving yourself time to arrange. Reading email before you go to bed, or while on holiday is a great way of getting yourself into work mode – just when you need to disconnect.
  5. Remove email from your smartphone. Be honest with yourself as to how you use email on your phone. Be clear as to when you are being reactive or passive user of email (mostly done when reading emails on phone). Removing easy access to email like this helps one not scratch the itch.
  6. Be more intentional about when you use email. Other forms of communication like a phone call or walking to someone’s desk can be a much better way of passing on information in a tone and manner that doesn’t get confused.

When you change your email habits, let your friends and colleagues know of the new rules. A colleague of mine has an out of office notification telling people when he reads emails (once a day only and in the morning). Most people’s responses are surprise and admiration for taking a line in this battle of office tool productivity.

Catherine Stagg-Macey // Catherine Stagg-Macey has spent over 20 years in the technology and insurance sectors. She has experience in a wide range of roles from programmer, project manager, leader and strategy advisor. At Celent, which she rejoined in Sept. 2014, she established and led the firm’s European Insurance practice. She now serves as Executive Advisor at the firm. Passionate about people, she retrained as a coach and founded Belgrave Street, a business offering executive coaching, workshops and facilitation to the insurance and technology industry. Follow her on Twitter: @staggmacey.

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