Managing Email Overload
Suggestions on how to make email work for a stress-free you
Last updated on 2018-01-14 by David Wallis
Back in the day, before the Inbox, you had an in-tray. Back in the day, your in-tray was made of wood.
Subsequently, it might have been made of plastic, or if you worked in a posh office, of metal mesh.
On a good day, all paper whatnots addressed to you added half-an-inch (12.7 mm) or so to the height of your in-tray's content.
In the 1980s the word processor got into the office; got connected to a printer. Important people learnt how easy it had then become to CC you into their memos. Thence your single in-tray lacked the capacity for a day's incoming paperwork. So, you added another one — your Do-it-by-Friday tray. And so on.
Around that time office workers started fretting about workload and managers about effects on productivity. I recall a time management seminar in which the presenter (he drove a Saab) suggested one technique for easing the pressure on your in-tray: take one-in-three of the memos, entirely at random, and bin them.
Whether anyone stuck to that suggestion, I don't know. Anyhow, that was just about the time that people began to speak of stress as an ingredient of their working day.
The coming of email seems to me to have cemented the dolorous tie-in of stress to working life.
Today, there are many you no doubt know who will attest that email is a major contributor to their stress.
Hence this piece — ruminating on my 30 years of experience working as a freelance — which I hope provides you with some things to try if you are finding email a hard row to hoe.
One of the keys to preventing email from overwhelming you is to stop it commanding your attention all the time.
“He, who every morning plans the transactions of the day, and follows that plan, carries a thread that will guide him through a labyrinth of the most busy life.”
Do allocate specific times today to doing your email.
Don't make yourself available to email all day long.
If I'm in the office, I do email a couple of times in the morning, after lunch, and then again no later than 4:00 PM unless I've planned to work late.
Why 4:00 PM? Well, in my experience most of the those emails requiring a lot of attention come late in the afternoon.
After 4:00 PM there won't be enough time for me to respond to any of these considerately before I head for home or the gym. So why on earth would I want to burden myself with them today and risk waking at 12:17 AM for a pee to be accompanied by an email-anxiety attack that prevents me getting back to sleep?
Managing Incoming Mail
Do attend to emails according to your schedule for your day's work.
Emails that need an immediate response I leave in Inbox until today's slot for attending to them. By immediate, I mean must be answered today. (Over the years, the pattern has been that clients needing immediate — like right-now immediate — will give me a phone call rather than send an email.)
Messages I consider can be answered in due course I move to folders set up as part of work scheduling. For example: I receive a request for renewal of a software license. I move that to the Accounts sub-folder of Business.
Emails from a suppliers with invoices attached I move to the Accounts folder too. No need to spend time on them right now — leave them for processing all in one go, usually scheduled for the third Thursday in the month.
Don't omit to attend to your schedule.
When it comes to the day I have scheduled for accounts, everything is in one place. I pay Microsoft and move the relevant email from the Business/Accounts to the Business/Microsoft folder.
I print out the invoice from ADT, to include in the ring binder my accountant needs to see, and I move the email to the Business/ADT folder.
Don't believe you can achieve “zero inbox” — not to be confused with Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero. Even if you have cleared Inbox, switched your computer off and left for home, most of the rest of the world is still working and sending emails. And your email server is fastidiously collecting those addressed to you for when you switch on in the morning.
Don't be distressed when you visit Inbox for the first time today to find it didn't pull up the drawbridge overnight. That, after all, is what you expect: imagine the discombobulation you would feel if there were no messages at all!
Folders for Email Messages
An orderly Inbox surely is key to reducing any sinking feeling you may experience each time you open it.
Do consider the use of folders for filing Inbox and Sent Items messages.
Folders are not just about shifting stuff away from Inbox. They allow you to group messages, in the way you would use cabinets, drawers, shelves, folders and binders for orderly storage of your paperwork.
“Files are like contracts. No one really needs them until there's a problem!”
These are the top-level folder I use because they reflect the client/project nature of my work as a freelance:
The Business folder contains the sub-folders mentioned in Managing Incoming Email, namely Accounts, Microsoft and ADT:
Don't be in a rush to set up your folders. Better to sketch out a plan for them and reflect it on before putting it into operation. You don't want to be moving hundreds of messages if you discover your folder structure is not totally fit for purpose.
Do keep your number of top-level folders to a minimum, no more than seven, say. You certainly do not want to find yourself scrolling a long list of folders to locate the one to use. Scrolling is counter-productive.
Don't ever name files “Miscellaneous” or “Other”.
Alternatives to Folders
“We all spend time every day looking for information in our email, yet we know little about this refinding process. Some users expend considerable preparatory effort creating complex folder structures to promote effective refinding. However modern email clients provide alternative opportunistic methods for access, such as search and threading, that promise to reduce the need to manually prepare.”
Am I wasting my time organizing email?
A study of email refinding.
Steve Whittaker, Tara Matthews, Julian Cerruti,
Hernan Badenes, John Tang
IBM Research (2011)
It's Not Just the Inbox
Those folders of mine also contain the emails I have sent. I move there messages from Sent Items. Thus I have the complete story all in one place.
Do make those scheduled visits to your email include Sent Items.
Do tidy Sent Items
Don't let your Out Box scroll more than a couple of screens.
Archive Old Emails
Do consider archiving instead of deleting messages.
On display in Outlook's Folder Pane I have folders for old emails:
I can call into Outlook archives for each year prior to when I need them.
It will take me a minute or so to set up Archive when that is needed.
Each archive folder has sub-folders the same as those in my current Inbox. The simply rules for archiving I have set Outlook take care of that: no need for me to create them.
An example of how this archiving worked for me was when the graphics card on one of my PCs acted up. I knew I had paid for extended warranty when I bought the PC. Locating Chillbast's email (in my Archive 2015/Chillblast folder) confirming the details of my order took me no more than a minute. Yep: five-year return-to-base warranty.
There's another example in To Delete or Not To Delete.
To Delete or Not To Delete
Do keep all emails, received from, and sent to, clients, suppliers, insurers, and so on — all those parties contributing directly to the functioning of your business.
Don't necessarily believe that deleting emails is you in anyway being tidy or productive.
Here is example of me being thankful that I keep everything other than rubbish.
In pursuit of a non-payment of invoice claim, DMW took a client to the small claims court. In DMW's bundle to the judge I was able to include all correspondence, including copies of emails, dating back over the four years leading up to the date of the action.
DMW's records showed that work for the client covered by the invoice had been completed and that fair opportunity had been extended to the client in pursuit of the claim prior to bring it to court. The majority of those records were email messages.
It was evident that such a complete set of information had a lot to do with the judge ruling in favour of DMW. The defendant's records, particularly in respect to emails, were so incomplete as to make their defence very difficult.
Do by all means delete rubbish, like spam, but perhaps not before you have built a rule to block it getting into your Inbox in future.
If I don't check email for a day then I can expect about 75 messages in my Inbox for when I next check. Those 75 have not been ambushed by my mail filtering rules, so they all need "attention".
Attention doesn't mead "reading". The first thing it means is delete the rubbish. Yep, that's me proselytizing — a guy who keeps everything.
Yes, the first email action I take is to delete the rubbish: click that one (spam) > Ctrl key down > click that one > click that one … click that last one > release Ctrl > press Delete. That leaves 40. What a clean out! ∴ ☕
Composing your message thoughtfully can spare you time later: your recipient doesn't need to come back asking for clarification.
In extreme circumstances, unintended misunderstandings can sour carefully built relationships with your clients.
Do apply punctuation fully and correctly.
Don't use slang.
Don't use jargon unless you are certain your recipient knows exactly what it means.
You've seen on this website that a lot of my work is to do with databases. Understand how reticent I have become about writing “DB” until everyone has firmly in mind that it's not to their pet's anatomy that I refer.
Don't make your message open ended.
“Hi David, Hows it going?”
Don't write in capitals
“Hi David, HOWS IT GOING? AJM”
Lest it comes across that you are angry and are being aggressive and therefore risking irritating the recipient.
My chimp's right on it:
“AJM, IT IS REALLY BIG BUSINESS, IF YOU HADN'T NOTICED”
Don't write in red.
“Hi David, How's it going? AJM”
I know AJM is talking about our project. It's a big one. There are a number of issues on-going. But the red sets my chimp off again:
“AJM, WHAT EFFING 'IT' ARE YOU REFERRING TO PRECISELY!??”
Starting with the Subject
“The from line is what recipients use to determine whether to delete an email. The subject line is what motivates people to actually open the email.”
Do include a Subject that is brief and to the point.
Don't throw in any old Subject because you can't be bothered to think of a concise one.
“It's never too early” — the subject of an email to me from an outfit I do want taking up my time. Now my spam filter flushes any email with this subject line.
Do make each email message about one subject only in an attempt to limit the scope of any one email thread.
Do exercise caution if including acronyms and abbreviations because they can easily lead to misunderstandings and unintended responses.
“Getting ready for GDPR”
WTF? For what? I can't be bothering with GPDR. Bin it.
Consider what the recipient will be thinking. Will she consider the email important enough to read; will he be sighing at the thought of having to spend time replying; will she be binning, along with all those other FYIs from senders too lazy and inconsiderate to compose a meaningful subject?
Do always start your message with a salutation.
I get a lot of “Hi”s and “Hello”s.
Whichever. But is a more thoughtful and considerate opener one in which you acknowledge by name the person you are emailing?
If James Watts has not already greeted me with a “Hi David” in previous exchanges, then I prefer “Hello Mr Watts”.
Don't dismiss formality out of hand. Maintaining it might help secure the sense of respect that you seek from a client or someone enquiring about your services for the first time.
Acronyms and Abbreviations
Do explain these if in any doubt that the recipient will not know what they mean, or will read an unintended meaning.
“Hi David, I did not understand your message. SMH, Allen”
“David, Glad the presentation went well for you! GFY, Marjorie”
There are acronyms that don't need spelling out — RAF and BBC, for example.
Do, if you are uncertain of usage, refer to a guide. This is an example of a recently published one:
The Times Style Guide: a guide to English usage (2017)
This is what The Times Style Guide has to say about abbreviations:
“abbreviated negatives (can't, don't, shan't etc, and similar abbreviations/contractions such as I'll, you're) should be discouraged except in direct quotes, although in more informal pieces such as diaries, sketches and some features they are fine when the full form would sound pedantic.”
Do when overwhelmed by the need to use an abbreviation be certain your recipient is going to able to deconstruct it.
Because Roger's impression of Jon was that he was a bit of a potato, Roger wasn't surprised to receive Jon's message minuting their initial meeting:
“hi, nittyarttioomm in saying what im asking for is worth no more than 2k, lol j”
Do always punctuate and take care to get it right. Always.
Eats, Shoots and Leaves, The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation Lynne Truss (Profile Books, 2003).
Don't fail to proof read for punctation mistakes. What will your recipient make of any sloppiness on your part?
“Hi David, Hows it going!”
Don't use exclamation marks any old how.
“exclamation marks nearly always unnecessary!!!!!”
The Times Style Guide, A guide to English usage (2017)
“Our findings provide first-time evidence that, contrary to actual smiles, smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence.”
The Dark Side of a Smiley
Effects of Smiling Emoticons on Virtual First Impressions
Ella Glikson, Arik Cheshin, Gerben A. van Kleef (July 2017)
Do you agree that inclusion of a :-) is likely to cause your message to be taken less seriously than you intended? Then —
Don't risk your credibility by using these potential pineapples.
Also, their use can sow the seeds of doubt for the reader as to what is actually in the sender's mind.
“David, How's the project progressing? ☹, Allen”
If you don't subscribe to my view that there is no place for emoticons in business emails, find encourgement in these two pieces:
To Smile or Not to Smile : Defining the Effects of Emoticons on Relational Outcomes Jina Yoo (2012)
How Emoticons Can Make You Happy And Win You Friends Bianca Bosker, The Huffington Post (2014)
If you are considering decorating your message —
Do at least check your emoticon's current meaning. As with synonyms and slang, meaning can change at the whim of social media.
Before You Send
Before you press Send imagine yourself as the recipient. What would be your immediate reaction to that email dropping into your Inbox?
Do review all aspects of your email.
Is your message lean and to the point?
If your message requires a response from the recipient, have you given her all the information you think she needs so that they don't have to chase you for more? Does he receive a clear idea of what it is you want from his reply?
Don't rush to send, risking creating confusion and misunderstanding, and thus extra work for all parties.
Do, for an email about a tricky to deal with issue, set it aside as a draft for further consideration, at least until after a coffee break.
When You're Away
Do leave an out-of-office reply whenever you are away from the office for more than a couple of days.
Something like: “Thank you for your email. I'm out of the office until and aim to reply by the Wednesday.”
Someone on the web suggests you say to the sender that they should not expect any reply at all to emails sent during your out-of-office spell. I haven't plucked up the courage to try this. If you have, please let me know and I shall open up a comment.
Don't omit to turn off the out-of-office reply as soon as you are back in after your hols.