An image of email flying from a black computer screen with the word “HELP!” superimposed on top.

Feel like your life is ruled by email? Here’s some tips to get control.

Let’s look at how we’re managing our email

mail is still one of the main tools we use in knowledge work and is also one of the biggest distractions in the workplace. Imagine if every email that arrived was a person that interrupted you from what you were doing; you would find it intolerable to deal with all the distractions and would have to do something about it. And yet we treat email as a special case, giving it permission to interrupt us throughout the day.

Let’s take a moment to think about email as a person who interrupts you. How many times do you review what you’ve got to do in a day, and realise that all you’ve actually managed to do is stay on top of your email? Now, let’s take a step back and think about how to handle emails more effectively.

Imagine you’ve had a holiday. When you come into work after some time off, you probably have a backlog of emails sitting waiting for you and you have to set some time aside to deal with them. If you’re anything like me. The first thing you do is have a little rant along the lines of “I’ve only been off for a week, how can I have a thousand emails?” and then you get on with the job of taming your inbox, clearing out the newsletters, deleting duplicates, finding things you need to do and trying to understand what’s been going on.

I find that, after a two week break, I realistically need to set aside about half a day to clear the majority of the mails, leaving a few that will require further investigation or discussions with other people. Now, if you consider how much time you spend each week dealing with email when you are simply dealing with it on a day by day basis, I’m sure you’ll agree that you spend more than half a day on it. Why is this so?

Put simply, it is more efficient to deal with a bunch of emails than it is to deal with them as they come in.

So, how is it more efficient? Well, if you come to a chain of emails with the same header, you can generally be certain that, if you open the most recent one, then the rest of the email chain is laid out in order within the mail. Simply read up from the bottom and you will be up to speed with the whole chain and can ignore the rest. This has the advantage that you can group your mail box and delete all the other mails in the chain. You’ll also find that, assuming that the email chain took a few hours to develop, that when you read it in one go, you will take in the details better than if you read each development piecemeal.

When you stop and look at the emails that you receive on any given day, I’m sure you’ll agree that they are not all blisteringly important and that there is probably a lot of “chaff” in your inbox at any one moment. By dealing with mail in batches, you’ll find it easier to get rid of the “chaff” and focus on the things that matter.

You can’t choose who’s going to send you things and you certainly can’t control the subject, but you can choose when you look at emails.

Perhaps by setting aside time each day when you will consciously deal with your mail, or you can be more radical and actually deny yourself access to mails for set periods of time. The lengths you have to go to to avoid distractions will depend on how distracted you are by emails.

I find the notifications that alert you when a mail has arrived act as a temptation to deal with the mail, so I have disabled the notifications so I can deal with mail on my own terms. I consciously avoid looking at the email client until I intend to deal with a batch of mail. Whatever email system you use, just Google how to switch off your notifications; you’ll appreciate the difference!

Another option is to actually closing down your email client, go on, try it, it’s liberating! Another option is to use the “work offline” option available within most popular email clients as this will prevent emails arriving but will allow you full access to your email. In Microsoft Outlook, click the file menu and select “Work Offline.” Hilariously, you can even “work offline” in browser-based Gmail!

In terms of frequency for dealing with your email, I would suggest twice a day is appropriate but you will have to decide what’s appropriate to your working environment. You should be wary of dealing with your mail as the first thing you do in the morning as this is tantamount to accepting that your email is the most important thing you have to do today. Is it really?

I would recommend that you simply review your mailbox, as a part of preparing your daily task list, in order to ascertain if any of the items are demanding of an immediate response. You should not treat email any differently to any other tasks on your to do list; if it is urgent and important, by all means deal with it, otherwise, simply rank it alongside your other tasks.

OK, so we’ve reduced the frequency we look at our email, let’s think about what we have to do once we’re looking at out inbox.

All email systems work around the basic premise of an “inbox.” If you take a moment to think about this, this is no different to the wire “in baskets” that used to grace all desks in the days of paper memos. That’s right, we’re using an innovation from offices of the 1800s to manage much of our life in the 2020s!

The complex nature of the modern working environment seems ill-served by the one size fits all approach of a single bucket to hold email and yet, this is how the majority of people use their email systems, simply defaulting to using the Inbox as their email “to do” list and reference store. Emails, by their nature arrive in chronological order and are not ranked by any kind of prioritisation. The only kind of prioritisation that is automatically available to you for a new email is when it arrived and any prioritisation flags the sender attached to it (and it is extremely unlikely that they will consider their email to be anything less than important). In fact, one Programme Manager of my acquaintance used to pre-set the option to send every mail they sent with a red priority flag on it; great for his ego but not so great from a prioritisation perspective. Sure, you can set up fancy rules to flag things as they arrive, but the chronological order tends to win out.

The other major pitfall to managing email is that people afford emails a special status almost outside of the scheduling decisions they make for the rest of their workload. There is absolutely no reason why you should treat emails differently to any other task allocated to you and prioritise accordingly.

So, let’s assume that your taking a look at your inbox in one of your scheduled slots. Any email that you read can be categorised as one of the four actions;

  • Delete
  • File
  • Respond
  • Schedule as a task

Here’s the process I follow a couple of times a day in order to stay on top of my mailbox;

1) Delete — scan through the list and using the title only delete any emails that are obvious candidates to be deleted. A good candidate for this is any “Your Mailbox is over its size limit” mails (!) or general communications from the organisation that do not apply to you or that you don’t read. Modern management is obsessed with communication, so, if you work in a large organisation I bet you get a few senior management “blog” notifications, a corporate ezine or two, plus various initiatives and project updates; all guaranteed clutter in my not so humble opinion. Taking a look at immediate candidates for deletion can clear a lot of emails and gives you an immediate feeling of achievement, but more importantly, it makes it easier for you to navigate your inbox during the following steps.

Now, starting with the most recent mail to arrive, open each mail and briefly scanning it decide on the action you will take. You might wonder why I say start with the most recent? Why not start with the oldest, I hear you say? Surely that would be fairer? Well, you should start with the most recent mail so that, in the event of a multi email chain of conversation, you come into the thread with the whole conversation laid out for you (allowing you to delete all other emails relating to earlier comments because you’ve already read them in the most recent instance of the mail. That tip alone will save you a bundle of time as people would often rather have a conversation by email than pick up the phone and speak to each other!

2) File — If a mail requires no action or is for information and you think you may need to refer to it at a later date, file it in a folder so you don’t have to think about it again today.

3) Respond — If an email is a simple question and can be resolved immediately, respond to it. Don’t worry about the mail’s overall priority in the grand scheme of things, responding to routine email is covered by the task you set yourself to manage your email a couple of times a day and leaving it to later simply introduces the inefficiency of reopening and rereading before you respond.

4) Schedule as a task — If a mail requires action that’s a bit more complex than an immediate response, perhaps requiring some detailed investigation or making some enquiries from other people, you should treat it the same as any other task. Add it to your task list, prioritise as appropriate and deal with it alongside your other tasks.

When making a note of the task, make sure that you record it using the title of the email so you can easily pick up the appropriate email when the task comes to the top of your list. The date and time of the mail is also useful as a way of letting you home in on a mail at a later date. I’ll also quite often make a note of something relatively unusual about the mail so I have something useful to search on if I want to find the mail later; for example, if the mail has an unusual word in it, you should be able to shortlist it quickly enough!

If I’m sending an email with a question for someone, one trick I like to use is to include a reference (perhaps the unique card number from our work management system) in the text of the email. That way, in the future, I can search my inbox to bring back all the related emails for a specific bit of work.

Once you’ve done a scan through your mails and have performed one of the four actions above, you’ve completed the task and should get on with something from your prioritised task list.

Now close your inbox; constantly scanning and responding to your emails is one of the quicker ways to fritter away a whole day!

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Chris Stevenson

I’m interested in lots of things and write about them. History, nature, environment, business topics, experimental stories and anything else I fancy.