Email is Your Enemy

Alan Belniakbusiness, General9 Comments


So many requests... so little time...

I was in a work meeting the other day, and a co-worker was projecting their screen so we could all look along. In the background, I spied this person’s Outlook inbox. There were 1,254 unread messages.

Really?! This person had twelve-hundred unread messages? I don’t even have one hundred messages in my root inbox (I’m particular about folders and such), and usually only have a dozen or so unread messages.

Email is a Fundamental Business Communication Tool

I realize that I may be in the minority. But I shouldn’t be. Here’s why: email is a fundamental business communication tool. Fundamental. That means ‘essential’. Like it or not, it’s the primary channel of communication for many white-collared jobs. But, when it falls into disrepair like this, it breaks down. Once it ceases to work for one person, it ceases to work for both people, since email is an asynchronous communication tool.

This must be fixed. As an analogy, I can’t just take my phone off the hook, and then say to someone, “Oh, I never had the energy to put it back on the hook – sorry that you can’t reach me by phone. And sorry I didn’t tell you that you can’t reach me that way, either.” That would never fly. The same for email. If it starts to get overwhelming, then address it.  When one has so many email messages in their inbox that replies are sent days after they’re needed, the tool has essentially become neutered. (And when I get those replies long after the issue has expired or moved on, I wince and feel embarrassed for the person who sent me the reply.)

Here are a few thoughts on email volume reduction and email volume management.

Email Volume Reduction Tips

  • First, sort messages by date. If you have any unread messages older than six months, delete them. Yes. Why? If you haven’t responded in six months, do you really, honestly think you’re going to respond to them next week? Nope, you aren’t. So get the monkey off your back.
  • Next, sort by sender. Identify the top five or six people that email you based on frequency. Let’s stipulate that these are work people, and you’re not getting emailed a ton from the outside by a lot of unknowns.
    • Schedule a short meeting, individually, with these five or six people. Have a chat and say, “Look – you’re probably aware that I’m not doing as good a job as I’d like in getting back to your messages. The thing is, I’m getting buried. Help me change that. Instead of emailing me little short updates three times a day, maybe group those into one message every two days, and separate each topic by a line.”
    • Or, ask for small check-in updates to be done via voicemail. Does your team send you attachments to read, and you often print them out (tsk, tsk)? Then simply have them print them and bring them to you/mail them/etc. (presuming you’re co-located).
    • Or, set up a wiki or team blog where your team can jot down little status updates, instead of emailing the team what they’ve done. Set up a recurring task or reminder to check that once a day at n:00.
    • Basically, you’re still communicating, but you’re shifting how you do it. You’re relying less on email and more on other methods.
  • Next, sort by title or subject. Are there ten items that deal with one topic? Read the latest one – that likely covers the entire thread. Mark the others as read, file them, or delete them.
  • Are you subscribing to newsletters and status updates? Can those. Or, set up a filter and push them to a separate folder to mass read, mass mark-as-read, or mass-delete (see below).
  • Quit bcc’ing yourself. That’s what a sent items folder is for.

Email Volume Management Tips

  • Do you read an item, decide to follow-up on it later, but keep it un-read so you know to address it?  Instead, mark it as read, add a flag or reminder, and move it to a ‘follow up’ folder.
  • Ask the people you work with to start making better use of subjects. For example, when I send certain things around, I use [article]: or [research report]: in the title, so people can quickly ID if they want to read it now or later. Suggest a syntax like that. Even better, suggest that, if the message requires the recipient’s attention, put [reply requested] or [follow up, please] in the subject.
    • If you’re expert (and you use Outlook), you can set this with email message flags, and not have to do this in the subject.
  • Use descriptive email headers/titles/subject lines, and not simply ‘proposal’ or ‘reply’. That says nothing. If you use descriptive headers on outbound messages, it makes searching better and easier, and it helps you prioritize what you read when replies come back to you. This, in conjunction with the tip above, makes addressing inbox and sent items much easier.
  • Use reminders and flags and color coding to your advantage. If you can’t do a lot to reduce the volume, at least manage it. Flag “urgent” items as red, “information only/FYI” as purple, “follow up soon” as yellow, and so on. Make a post-it note of this legend and slap it on your monitor.
  • Use fewer folders (yes, fewer) and instead rely on good search. I did this a while back when I switched careers. It was the best time to make the change in how I use email. I have only a handful of folders, and I very loosely categorize. But I use the search tool in Outlook (CTRL + SHIFT + F) and tweak what I search on to find things.
  • Archive your content frequently. Don’t get caught in email jail at the most urgent time you need to send something. I skim through my sent mail every Friday morning over my coffee. Because I do this every week, and because I sort by subject, then sender, I can move and archive in a matter of minutes. I’ve never trusted Outlook auto-archive feature.

Change The Way You Communicate

Do what you can face-to-face (I’m guilty of this, too, and I need to get better). What you can’t do face-to-face, do via phone. And what you can’t do via phone, do via IM. And what you can do via IM, do via email.  In the end it’s a way to communicate, not the way.  And if it’s broken for one, it’s broken for both.

How about you? What do you do to reduce email volume (either sent OR received)? What do you do to manage it? Share your tips and thoughts in the comments below.  Here’s one great idea from 43Folders, called email DMZ.

Update: Just saw this from a co-worker (specific for Outlook):

image source: Inbox Overload by grantneufeld

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