Dealing with email overload

Email is amazing. I can send a message to anyone in the world in seconds, for free, regardless of which application, platform or device we are both using. But it’s been so effective at removing barriers to communication that it’s become a barrier to productivity (and wellbeing). Sound familiar?

Over the last twenty years I’ve had to develop ways of coping with email overload, and whilst I assumed everyone had developed similar tricks I keep seeing friends and colleagues struggling, so I’ll set out my top tips for making sure you’re in charge of your email, and not the other way around.

Follow and encourage ‘the rules’

Apparently this is something which isn’t widely known, but it’s one of the fundamentals of effective use of email. There are variations on a theme, it’s sometimes referred to as ’email etiquette’ (which sounds like an obscure social code rather than a common sense ) but I refer to it as ‘the rules’, which put simply are;

  1. Address emails correctly.
    1. Emails TO someone mean they are required to do something (either reply with information requested, approve a proposal etc.)
    2. Emails CC to someone mean it’s for their information, and they are not required to do anything.
    3. Only include people in the email who you know have asked to be included, who are required to respond or complete an action, or who you know will want to have been included. Do NOT copy people without purpose (especially line managers, role based mailboxes etc.)
  2. Use meaningful subject lines. This is vital to communicating effectively and enabling others to respond. The subject is supposed to give the recipient an idea of what the topic and/or purpose of the email is before they even open it. If you’re forwarding an email and the topic or purpose could be clarified, do so.
  3. Do not use email for extended conversations. If you find yourself 8 emails into a thread (especially one with multiple people copied) then that is no longer the right medium to communicate. Try a meeting (face to face, video or phone conference), use instant messaging if its 1-2-1, or just go and talk directly to person if they’re free (face to face can be so much quicker and more effective).

Choose when to read it

Email can be demanding. The user interface of email clients on PCs, laptops and smartphones is designed to attract your attention every time you receive an email and constantly remind you of how many unread emails you’ve got. Rather than feel compelled to respond to these notifications, take control of when you read email (because almost all emails can wait, believe me).

How often you read and respond to emails will be best determined by you, but ‘in real time’ is what you need to avoid. I tend to read email when I first arrive at work, at or just before lunchtime, and before I go home. I bracket the day to make sure I’m aware of everything that’s occurred, and I check-in at lunchtime to see if there’s anything I should respond to before the end of the day.

You can still respond to emails which you know to be time sensitive or particularly important, and notifications will help you do that. This can easily become a return to ‘respond on receipt’ behaviour which will make it almost impossible to get anything done, so make a conscious decision about when you will read and respond immediately. I summarise my approach as “If I don’t respond to this email for 3-4 hours will it impact my personal objectives or that of my employer?” The answer to that question is almost certainly, NO.

Automate processing

Not all emails are equal, or need the same sort of attention. Whatever email service or application you use, it should have some sort of ‘rules’ system (if it doesn’t, consider moving to one that does). Categorising and filing emails according to the sender, subject line etc. allows you to separate out emails of different priorities so you can look at them at the right time.

Below are examples of the rules I’ve applied in a previous role (I’m still new to my current job so until I understand the flow of communication at Delt I don’t know which rules to apply);

  • Move emails where I am not in the TO recipient (e.g. emails I’m copied on or emails to a distribution list) into a subfolder of my inbox. Now what’s in the inbox is stuff I have to act on.
  • Move emails from mailing lists I’m subscribed to into a mailing lists folder for daily or weekly review.
  • Move notification emails from incident, request and change management systems into a subfolder for processing as a block.

These rules meant my inbox was largely clear of ‘noise’ and what was in there was all actionable.

Don’t use it as a task list or a filing system

There’s a whole different blog post to write on this, but it is vital that when you’re processing emails, make sure you extract actions or content from the email. Actions can be pushed into any productivity tool (I use Todoist), attachments saved somewhere more appropriate (network or cloud storage, a document library), and if necessary record anything particularly critical (e.g. business decisions relating to significant risk or cost) to another medium (I save emails to OneNote).

You might think “it’s very useful to be able to go back to an email from years ago and pull out the document attached” but what you’re doing is building a data management debt, an information governance and security nightmare, and potentially breaking data protection law in the process.

Search is awesome

This one is weird. I expect to see colleagues who don’t have a technical background trying to find emails by going to a folder, sorting by sender and scrolling, but I see technical colleagues doing it too, and it baffles me! There are a wealth of amazing search options in Microsoft Outlook and Apple Mail which make finding that one specific email trivial.

MethodApple MailMicrosoft Outlook
Find by authorfrom
Find by subjectabout outagesubject:outage
Find by date29 Januarysent:29/01/2019
Find attachmentsPDF attachmentext:pdf

I particularly like Apple’s natural language search which allows me to search for things like “from paul jones about offer” and straight away I’ve found the email I wanted! So if you’re still spending ages finding emails check the help page for your application (e.g. Apple Mail or Microsoft Outlook).

Use delete

This is the one which many people seem to be most afraid of, deleting an email. However, if you think about it how many emails that you’ve recieved are actually an important personal or organisational record? How many can you imagine going back to in years to come (see above ref not using your email as a filing system).

There are some things you should always delete; emails containing personal or personal sensitive data should be deleted in line with your data retention policies, emails from mailing lists should be deleted annually at least (most have an online archive you can review if you really must), and emails about the availability of cake in the office don’t really need to be stored on your high availability cloud mail service for ever.

One way I find it useful to handle deletion is to have two options;

  1. Delete immediately. This is for emails which have zero value once you’ve read them, they’re transient.
  2. Delete using to retention policies. This is why I still ‘file’ my email, it allows me to set data retention policies on each folder, appropriate to the type of emails in there. So for example ‘General Admin’ has a 90 day retention, ‘Management’ has a 2 year duration (and is cleaned of personal data at receipt).

It works

I’ve been using email for longer than I care to remember (I’m ancient) and I’ve been tweaking this system continually over time. I’ve worked on Helpdesks, Contract Management, Sales, and in Management roles and I’ve reached the point where I always know what’s going on, I always reply when it counts, and I always keep my inbox clear.

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