Managing Email Overload
Managing incoming information is probably the toughest job around for the 21st century knowledgeworker. We can choose through rigid self-discipline to stop flicking through our Facebook feeds every 10 minutes whilst we’re supposed to be working, but what about email – that direct business communications tool that we are supposed to be in control of? Some of that stuff hitting our inbox is vitally important, but how can we identify and respond to that, amongst all the rest, and still get other things done during the day?
1. Filter the spam – use a service like Messagelabs, Spamfighter or Mailwasher, to strip out anything dangerous or seriously obnoxious at source, don’t even waste time looking at anything that could contain a virus or offensive keywords.
2. Kill the Bacn. That’s the stuff that isn’t really quite spam, because you signed up for it. Messages from retailers, social network notifications, newsletters, and so on. You signed up because you thought it would be useful, but usually its designed to be of more use to the sender than the recipient. Think about the various sources of Bacn in your inbox, and how long it takes to skim and delete it, vs how often anything actually useful emerges – then dedicate a day or two to unsubscribing rather than just deleting. If you really find newsletters useful then try automatically filtering to a subfolder, using Outlook’s ‘rules’ or Gmail’s ‘smart labels’
3. Use RSS instead. Lots of this kind of information can be followed as a feed instead, and this is far easier to skim through for interesting nuggets than actual email messages that have to be opened and read. Feeds are also much easier to catch up with after a break, than an inbox of soul-crushing proportions, and they won’t hide anything different and important that could get overlooked.
4. Don’t leave stuff in the inbox. Read it and if you are not going to do action it or respond to it that day, then get out into a folder somewhere. Your inbox is not the place for a to-do list – by all means create a folder called ‘to do’ or ‘action items’ or something… but you need to use your inbox to capture new stuff, then process it into the right folder once you’ve decided what (if anything) you need to do with it.
5. Use rules and colors. Investigate the features of your chosen mail handling software, you might find it could do more for you than you than you realize. Set rules to route mail from certain clients or contacts directly to their correct folder, colour code messages from people who need urgent responses, or route messages related to a specific project into a relevant folder so you can review them in context.
6. Batch 'em up. Shifting gear out of whatever you are doing to read and respond to email takes an unjustifiable amount of time, so batch it ruthlessly! Decide to check your email only once every 2 hours, or whatever you feel is realistic and appropriate, then stick to it. You can set Outlook or your Blackberry to only check for new messages periodically. If you have messages that really must be responded to more urgently than that, you could consider an autoresponder explaining that you are in ‘project meetings’ (you are – with yourself!) on and off all day and expect to be checking email at midday then again at 4pm, please call if it is more urgent than that... or allow yourself to skim the inbox every half hour looking only for the color-coded emails from that person. But don’t start looking through everything, set a time to do that and then get on with something productive. If you have to let messages come on through, kill the pop-up notifications that constantly interrupt you.
7. Send less email yourself. This is almost too obvious to state, but it’s still important. If you send an email, you generate a reply that will interrupt you some time in your future! So could you call that person instead, you’ll answer your query more quickly, or would an IM do. Or are they actually in the next office and you could stroll over there in 5 minutes, that’d do you good actually! There are plenty of circumstances where you need stuff on an audit trail and all there in writing… and also plenty of times when really, you don’t. Try the long lost art of conversation instead…
8. Send better email yourself. Set an example to your contacts, by writing clear, succinct messages. Use a meaningful subject line, ask for specific actions in response, make it clear exactly why you sent the message. Above all do the thinking first, then write and send the email if it is necessary to do so. This professional courtesy will be appreciated by the recipient, who will hopefully send you a meaningful, actionable and logical reply – if a reply is required.