Jerry Osteryoung: Limit your time on email

August 23, 2013 

It wasn't by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics. ~Ernest Hemingway

With social media, e-mail, mobile phones, text and the regular old telephone, keeping track of all the ways information pours in can be overwhelming. E-mail in particular seems to eat more time than any other method of communication.

In my line of work, I am always meeting with executives. Oftentimes, I walk in to their offices just before our appointment and catch them hard at work on something. When I ask them what they were so focused on, they just about always answer with exasperation, "E-mail!"

Just like these executives, many of us spend too much of our time responding to e-mails.

For example, a good friend of mine once spent three days responding to one e-mail. I did everything I could to get him to recognize what a time suck this behavior was -- even wrote a column about it -- but he was convinced his time was well-spent.

Another entrepreneur insists that she reviews every e-mail sent from the business before it goes out. She goes through more than 500 e-mails each day and, on some days, is at it for more than four hours.

These are a couple of extreme examples, but I think we can all attest to

the fact that e-mail has swallowed more of our time than we would like to admit. I think the key to getting a handle on this is setting a maximum amount of time to commit to this task each day. For some, this is one hour. For others, it is two. The important thing is that you limit the time you spend responding to e-mails.

Setting a limit like this forces you to prioritize your e-mails and attack your inbox strategically. Maybe you need to respond to your staff's concerns first and then address others if time allows. Or maybe you only respond to those that indicate they are high priority in the subject line (of course, if this is your process, you would need to tell the folks you communicate with). The point here is establishing a process that allows you to deal with the most important issues in your inbox while limiting the time you spend on e-mail.

One thing you can do to help is limit the number of messages that hit your e-mail in the first place. Give colleagues and staff some guidance about which e-mails you want to be copied on. For example, you might request that you are only copied when your department is directly impacted.

Another thing you can do is tell your staff that e-mails need to include a specific request in the subject line. This will force them to clearly specify what they are requesting early on and allow you to quickly respond.

A third suggestion is limiting your e-mails to one point only. Too often we try to cover too many issues in one message, and it takes more time to digest the material. Keeping to just one topic per message will help you get control of the e-mail monster.

Now go out and establish "rules of engagement" for your e-mail.

Jerry Osteryoung, a consultant to businesses, is the Jim Moran professor of entrepreneurship (emeritus) and professor of finance (emeritus) at Florida State University. He can be reached by email at

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