E-mail overload can be overwhelming

January 24, 2014 

Your email inbox is a bit like a Las Vegas roulette machine. You know, you just check it and check it, and every once in a while there's some juicy little tidbit of reward, like the three quarters that pop down on a one-armed bandit. And that keeps you coming back for more. -- Douglas Rushkoff

I think most of us would agree that the vast number of emails we receive every day has become a bit overwhelming. Many executives get upwards of 500 emails a day.

While technology has provided some help with managing our inboxes, this problem seems to be getting worse rather than better. More people seem to prefer communicating via email about anything and everything.

That said, there are a few things you can do to help keep this glut of emails in check so you do not have to sacrifice your responsiveness to your staff. The key here is making sure you are only receiving emails you need to see.

People overuse the CC feature, often copying multiple parties without any thought to who really needs to see the message. You can help minimize how many superfluous emails you receive by instructing your staff what you want to be copied on and what you do not. For example, if your staff is discussing how they can solve a problem among themselves, you probably do not need to see every message sent on the topic.

There are no set rules here. It is a matter of using common sense then being open with your staff. The number of emails I receive has decreased by 50 percent because I gently explained to my staff what I wanted to see and what I did not want to see.

The "Delete" key can also be a big help to you. Often times, you can figure out whether an email is worth reading simply by looking at who sent it and the subject line. If you do

not know the sender and/or the subject line seems strange, delete it.

Many of us subscribe to various mailing lists because we think we might benefit from the info they send out. But if we are honest, we know we rarely have time to read them, and they just end up getting deleted anyway. Your best bet here is to unsubscribe. It is a time waster just trying to keep your inbox clear of these messages.

Another helpful tactic is having a dedicated time for responding to emails. Rather than reading and responding to emails all day long as they come in, try allocating two hours a day to work in your inbox -- one in the morning and one in the afternoon. If we allow it to, email is a constant interruption. This approach does wonders for your productivity.

You should also keep in mind that no law says every email needs a response. Respond only when a reply is really needed, and unless you have a real concern with a message you were CCed on, a reply from you is probably not necessary.

When a response is needed, my favorite tool is the email template. Prebuilt templates are a very fast and easy way of replying to specific requests when a standard response will do. For example, I use templates when the person's request is going to take time to analyze. My standard response thanks them for their email and lets them know I received their request and will get back with them in a certain number of days. I also use templates when I am responding to people who have asked permission to quote my writing in other publications.

The one-minute rule is another guideline that helps you be more efficient in your email replies. The rule says if you can reply to an email in one minute or less, go ahead and do it right after you have read the email. Like paper, you want to handle emails as few times as possible, and the one-minute rule ensures you can get through your inbox quickly.

One last thing to remember is that your time is probably worth $200 an hour. Is handling your email bringing $200 worth of value to your firm?

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 jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com.

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