12 ways to cope with too many emails

Does an inbox stacked with too many emails confront you every time you switch on your computer or phone? Dealing with email stress is now key to working efficiently and avoiding email overload. Here are 12 ways to improve your email management, based on academic research and advice by experts.

1. Cure email addiction by checking less often

Studies have shown that many of us suffer from “email addiction”, checking our inboxes as often as 30 or 40 times an hour. This cuts productivity because processing too many emails distracts us from the task in hand, while it can take about a minute on average for our brains to refocus on what we were doing.

So, cure your email addiction by turning off your email notifier, and making a rule about how often you are going to check – once an hour is plenty, while checking your email just twice a day works well for many as a way both to cut stress and get more done. (Some employers have even introduced email-free days to encourage staff to build better relationships by talking face-to-face instead.)

If you are going to check your emails, say, twice a day, then it’s also worth doing so at set times. Julie Morgenstern, “Oprah’s favourite organizing expert”, has even written a book called Never Check Email In The Morning, on the grounds that doing so distracts us from higher priority work when most of us are at our most productive.

Give a contact phone number in your email sign-off – if it’s really urgent, people will find a way to contact you.

2. Delete

You don’t open or keep all your post, so why do it with email? It’s amazing how many emails you can delete without reading them.

Deleting at least some emails is also vital if, say, your inbox space is limited by your employer’s system. (If it is, then also consider switching to a service like Google’s Gmail, which hosts emails on its servers, allowing you far more space.)

If you commute to a work and can access email en route, spend a few minutes deleting selected emails before you arrive, and deal with important ones when you arrive.

3. Use filters to help email management

Most email programs have built-in tools to help with email management.  Filters can help identify emails from senders who are important, like your boss or clients, so that you can give them priority. They can also allow you to mark others as “junk” or spam, and send them straight to your junk/spam folder.

4. File it

All email programs enable you to create folders to store emails with subject headings such as “Reply later”, “Keep this” or “Unsubscribe”. If you use them, however, you must build in time to deal with such emails later.

5. Follow the two-minute rule

If two minutes is all it will take, then reply straight away, advises David Allen, the productivity guru, author of the bestseller Getting Things Done and an expert on email management.

If it will take longer to reply properly, then another technique some people recommend is to give a quick, one-line reply straight away, stating simply that you will give a proper reply later.

6. Keep it brief

Make a rule that you will keep your emails as brief as possible – no more than five sentences, say, or shorter if you can.

7. Resist the cc button

Email overload is often the result of copying in people unnecessarily. Using “Reply All” is an invitation to others to do likewise, generating too many emails for all parties. Doing so can also create long threads that cause even more email overload and stress.

8. Write a clear subject line

Making clear the subject of your email by writing a clear subject line can reduce email stress for others by helping them to delete irrelevant emails without reading them. It also encourages them to use clear subject lines.

You can and sometimes should change the subject line of an email thread that has reached a stage where the original subject line no longer applies.

9. Use an auto-response message – e.g. to say you’re out-of-office

Letting people know with an automated response either when you are out of the office and/or how quickly you will aim to respond will cut email overload by, among other things, discouraging them from sending follow-up emails.

Leave such a message switched on until you’ve cleared your backlog – or, depending on what the message says – permanently.

So, when people email Julia Hobsbawm, author of the book See-Saw: 100 Ideas for Work-Life Balance and founder of her own networking business, Editorial Intelligence, they get an automated reply saying, “Hi there. Slow is the new Fast: I now aim to reply closer to 24 hours than 24 minutes or 24 seconds. I hope you don’t mind. Julia.”

What’s more, she’s had a good reaction to this message. “I’ve noticed that people don’t rush to email me back; so the phone has become the urgent tool again.”

10. Try an email management app

One that has got a lot of attention is a free iPhone app called Mailbox, which aims no less than to change the way we use email. It starts from the premise that the best way to handle an email is to decide the first time you look at it whether to delete, save or action it. It therefore prompts you to sort your emails into relevant folders as soon as you see them.

There are also other email management apps for iPhones (Clear is one of the most popular) and, of course, others for Android users, including some that come with the device. Google “email management app android” to find them.

11. Don’t get angry or respond in haste

If an email has upset you, don’t reply in haste, or late at night, especially if you are tired or have had a few drinks. You may regret it later, creating another kind of email stress. Write a reply by all means, but don’t press send. Applications like Boomerang allow you to delay sending emails, and even retrieve them after sending.

12. Too many emails? Why not try talking instead?

Emails can be misunderstood; maybe the sender was joking or, indeed, suffering from their own email stress. Without body language, it can be hard to tell. That’s why trying something really radical like… talking, on the phone or in person, can sometimes be a better option.

Hilly Janes

About Hilly Janes

Hilly Janes is an award-winning former health editor at The Times. She has 20 years' experience on national newspapers and magazines and is the author of Latte or Cappuccino? 125 Decisions That Will Change Your Life (Michael O’Mara Books, 2012).

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