Email overload is a huge productivity problem in the workplace. I meet people all the time who complain about email, saying it's overwhelming them, wishing there were an off switch for all the new messages pouring into their inboxes.
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Many of these same people, however, fixate on email in such a way that they end up exacerbating the problem. What I see are people who try to combat email with more email, which in turn generates ever more email. Because they're mired in email misery, they usually can't see what's happening clearly, so they have no idea that they're making it worse.
There are a few ways I've noticed people shoot themselves in the foot while trying to deal with email overload.
Inbox as a To-Do List
The first example of people who make their email problems worse are to-do listers, as I like to call them. To-do listers leave emails in their inboxes when the message either contains a task or triggers the memory of an assigned task. In other words, they use use the inbox as a to-do list.
Think about how people usually assign tasks via email. Rarely is the task clearly stated in the subject line. The receiver has to open and read the email to know the details of the task. More likely, though, the message won't have all the information the receiver needs, such as a deadline or other details about the task. An exchange of messages back and forth clarifies the task, and it ends up creating a new piece of email every time it happens. In short, Email inboxes are very poor to-do lists.
Another problem is that to-do listers have to constantly check each incoming mail to see whether it contains a task, and if it doesn't, they get rid of the mail promptly. To-do listers end up weeding incessantly.
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Worse, to-do listers become accustomed to checking their inboxes for their daily tasks, and often, they often end up emailing themselves reminders of other things they want to get done.
If email is a problem, why would you want to create more email in this way?
In the thick of it, however, to-do listers can't see how their system is making the matter worse. They often argue that using their inbox as a to-do list is the only thing that works. But if this same person feels overwhelmed by email, clearly it's not working. There are a few solutions, and I'll get to them in a moment.
I spoke at a corporate retreat recently about email management. To prepare for the talk, I spoke to some employees and learned that a lot of them were managing huge volumes of email, sometimes 1,000 messages per day, using Nudgemail. They thought this was a perfectly sane way to manage the flow.
Nudgemail is a freemium tool that lets you essentially snooze email by setting a time when it will reappear in your inbox as a new message. "Essentially" is a very important word here.
Most snooze functions, like those in SaneBox or some of the best email apps, hide the original message from your inbox and then make it reappear as a new unread piece of mail at the time you choose. Nudgemail works a little differently. When you use it to snooze mail, the original email stays in your inbox and a new message appears at the top of your inbox, with the entire thread of the original message cited.
Don't get me wrong. Nudgemail is a fine tool, and it's a great solution in some circumstances. Anyone who views the inbox as a stream of information rather than a collection point for communication that needs to be processed, might do well to use it. But when workers tell me that the sheer number of messages in their inboxes leaves them unable to do their jobs, and 20 percent of their messages are repeated messages in the form of Nudgemails, that's a problem.
Much as to-do listers can be in denial about the fact that their system is broken, some Nudgemail users turn it into a crutch. They're so stuck in their current habits that they can't envision a better solution.
Very often, replying to an email is a way of acknowledging someone else's message without actually moving the conversation forward. Imagine a coworker emails to ask your opinion of a presentation. You haven't looked at the presentation yet. Depending on your workplace, it might be more acceptable to reply quickly with, "I don't know. I haven't looked yet," than to wait two hours until you have looked and formed an opinion. When you jump to reply quickly, even if the message isn't substantive, you're generating excess email. If company culture pushes you toward that behavior, you'd better believe other people are doing it to you, too.
A person who is slow to reply to email may be seen as lazy or not being a team player, even if waiting to reply to an email is a much more logical and productive way to go about it. But it's completely backward, and you need to break away from it if you feel inundated by email.
What ends up happening is that people reply to messages just to pass the buck. Let's say Raj asks Sarah's opinion of something, and she replies, "Not sure. What do you think?" Now the ball is back in Raj's court, and the onus is on him to reply if only so that Sarah will have a new unread message in her inbox reminding her to actually answer this time.
Another example that's common for folks in support departments, such as IT, is that they will set up a generic email address for employees to file help tickets, like ITemail@example.com. When an employee is freaking out that her computer is broken, however, and she needs to get help quickly, she might forget about the generic email and instead email the person she knows in IT. Should that IT person take care of the problem? Ignore the email? Reply and tell the employee she needs to use the correct IT-help address? CC her boss? What's the right thing to do?
Often the response, fueled by panic and frustration, just generates more email (and creates tension). Again, it's an example of company culture creating expectations of a quick response that's at the root problem. But you can break away from this pattern without disturbing the peace and generate fewer emails as a result.
Solutions to Excessive Email
How do we stop generating excessive emails? Some solutions are simple and quick, and an individual can do them without the support of the company.
In the previous example, the IT staff person could probably nip the problem in the bud by having a face-to-face conversation (or phone call with a remote employee), rather than replying by email. If the IT person replies by email, the coworker in need probably won't read it very closely anyway. Remember, she's already stressed out about her computer problem. It may sound very low-tech but confronting the coworker face-to-face, calmly and professionally, will help her remember the right protocol for filing help tickets in the future, especially if the IT person explains whatever other jobs were taking priority at the moment. Explaining in person goes a long way.
Another way to stop generating excessive email for yourself is to find good email assistant tools that help you cut back on email in your inbox, rather than propagate it, as Nudgemail does. SaneBox (about $7 per month) is the solution I recommend. Mailbird is an email client app that comes with a snooze option and other features that might help as well.
Stop using your inbox as your to-do list, both for personal tasks and work-related tasks. There are so many great tools now that are much better at assigning tasks, tracking them, updating the details about them, and so forth, that don't rely on email. I like Todoist, although Wunderlist is also a great app.
If you can convince your work team or department to pick up a better tool for task assignments, you'll really be in much better shape. Aside from full force project management apps, there are other collaboration apps that are lightweight, easy to use, quicker to set up, and they may be a better solution to your team's challenges.
For more, see my other tips for how to cut back on office email overload.