Getting away from email tyranny

How much of your job is driven by email? I’m one of those people who stops everything whenever I see a number on the email icon – on any one of the many devices I have which can read emails. I know it’s wrong; but equally, I’ve seen people who apparently have thousands of unread emails – isn’t that just as wrong?

I’ve seen studies that say we check for email 36 times an hour, and that we spend 13 hours a week reading and managing email. I’ll just leave a paragraph break here while you digest those statistics.

What? Surely this can't be REAL?

Even if those figures are exaggerated by weird outliers, one thing’s for sure: the interruption caused by checking and reading an email must cause a lack of productivity. There’s a study for that too, of course: it claims that the time taken to refocus fully on the job is an astonishing 16 minutes. I know some people who declare “email bankruptcy” whenever their “unread” list gets too big (such as after a holiday). The whole lot goes in the bin, on the assumption that if it was important, whoever sent the email would get back in touch.

I wondered how this might work, so I just looked at my own business emails. I appear to get around 350 a week, of which maybe 50 are from clients, and are therefore of top priority, and about the same number are from colleagues, so they need to be read and actioned, but perhaps not urgently. The rest fall into different categories, but to be honest, I could write some mail rules and file most of them away invisibly, perhaps to be examined if I get a spare hour at the end of the week. That’s one thing I think I’m going to do this year.

How else can we get away from being governed by email? Certainly switching off any email notifications, for sure. Getting into the habit of looking at our email inboxes less frequently is harder, but I’ve decided to quit out of my email application after every time I use it. That may work.

I’m also giving up what little email “management” I still do, which is some occasional labelling. It’s really not necessary, but at least I’m not one of those people who puts every email into its own labelled folder. Seriously, if you still do that, you really do need to have a rethink. Just put every old email into one big archive, and use search.

What tips and tricks do you have for getting away from email tyranny? Let me know in the comments.

Discussion

  1. Simon Flatt

    Rather than taking the easier/quicker option of simply deleting messages you don’t want to read (and, thus, leaving yourself open to more messages in the future from the same organisation/mailing list) be absolutely ruthless and disciplined with unsubscriptions.

    This includes hitting ‘unsubscribe’ on those messages that you might previously have put to one side thinking that may be interesting to read at some point but, in reality, you never go back to.

  2. andy pye

    Yes, email has made productivity worse, not better. I get >7000 a month. Having to put a stamp on a letter made people think before they sent.

    I do use invisible filters to put emails in selected folders for possible later viewing (although I hardly ever do!).

    But my best method of avoiding too much intrusion is not to look at email before 4pm in the afternoon – this ensures that you don’t get into email conversations which use up the whole day and prevent you from doing what was on your original To Do list for the day (you do have a To Do list, don’t you?). I keep to this about 3 days in 5, but it’s better than nothing. Yesterday, I didn’t have time at all, so 4pm in the afternoon became 3am the following morning, when the cricket was on telly!

    I disagree with your views about not using labels (as distinct from folders). On the contrary, they enhance the natural Google search capabilities hugely. I use them in three ways:

    (a) As a technical writer, I write articles on certain things which I know in advance – say I have to write an annual article on “Food Automation”, I will have a label to that effect and everything which is relevant is labelled accordingly. Then when I come to write the article, I simply go to that label. This is a much better method that relying on Google to find relevant emails, which may not contain the right keywords.

    (b) In addition, I keep various other Gmail accounts which I use to forward emails on certain subjects, which enable colleagues to have access to emails on certain subject areas, and if they do likewise, it provides a repository for a team – in my case an editorial team, but it could be a team responsible for any activity.

    (c) Anything in my Inbox which isn’t either labelled or forwarded as above is separated into two labels – “Needs Action” and “When Time Permits”, with obvious implications! I remove these from the Inbox altogether, which helps to keep stress levels down (I don’t like more than 50 emails in my Inbox at any time). I handle the “Needs Action” ones daily. The “When Time Permits” folder hardly ever gets looked at – it’s like a life sentence in solitary confinement for email messages..

    Finally, I never delete any emails (apart from obviously spammy ones), but just archive them in Gmail, so I have well over 150,000 archived emails. In effect it costs me nothing to keep them, as Gmail storage capacity costs shirt buttons. And once in a while, it is useful to refer back.

  3. Kim Harris

    Chris, it’s not often that I disagree significantly with what you write, even if it’s not always applicable to my business. However, on this occasion, I disagree with just about everything in this article – albeit from a personal point of view.
    My business is sales of comms and networking equipment and often we win business simply by being the first to respond to an enquiry or a request for quotation. 5 or 10 minutes can make all the difference between winning new business or losing it to someone more on the ball. On occasions we have quoted, supplied and been paid before other suppliers have even responded. Most of our enquiries come via email so we never delay responding or ignore email alerts. We recognise that our business IS email driven and I for one am quite pleased about that.
    Not everyone can plan their working day in the way that you describe and block out times for customers which are convenient to ourselves. I am not even sure that I would want to.
    As to having one huge archive and searching it? I seem to recall responding to you on this previously; it would simply drive me crazy. What would you search on? I don’t always remember the subject. I may remember the email address. If I have messages in the many folders which you deride, I can always find them and automatically look at the most recent. That works well for me and keeps my inbox and sent box completely clear so that when things come in anew, they are easily spotted and dealt with or deleted. This particularly helps on a phone or iPad.
    Each to their own!

  4. Nick Revels

    Try to open any message only once: decide if it warrants immediate action, a reply later, or bin. If it’s a “later”, draft two or three words as a memory jogger and put in drafts. At the end of the day spend a few minutes completing the few drafts. Saves scanning the inbox again.

  5. Lynne East

    The trouble with the delete option is that you are sure to need to find out that you need it next month, next year or whatever. When email is usually the only form of correspondence you do need to keep records and an audit trail.

    Then there’s the problem with stuff being silo-ed in individuals’ in-boxes (and possibly purged if they leave the business).

    I’m using Oasys Mail Manager, a really low cost Outlook plug in that saves emails into folders on the server that we can all access. It remembers my behaviour so usually prompts me where to file with just one click. The inbox is magnificently empty and if I do need to find something, I can do so by just querying a name or a phrase or word that would be included.

    I no longer dread opening Outlook!

    We need email: no point in complaining …just manage it.

  6. David Laurence

    Of course don’t forget social media updates, LinkedIn and Twitter in particular.

    My routine is to check LinkedIn updates at tea time and Twitter last thing at night – surprisingly
    relaxing I find ;-}

  7. Peter Mann

    The problem, it seems to me, with using search as the filing tool is finding stuff where there’s nothing to go on – folks who send me photos for a particular job with the subject heading (if I’m lucky) of ‘Photos’ or ‘More photos’ with no message or context (other than at the time knowing what they are for etc).

    And, er, others who invent a sexy subject line which can’t be filed alphabetically for a quick visual search or use a previous subject line having forgotten to change it when the subject changes.

    So boring and time consuming though it is, individual folder filing is my preferred method – and as Lynne says, makes for a good audit trail.

  8. Chris Rand Post author

    I’m going to guess that those of you who stick to “boring and time consuming” filing of emails have never tried not doing so (and I’m never going to persuade you either!). I gave it up 10 years ago, and have never had a problem with locating emails. Sometimes it takes a few seconds longer than it might otherwise, but that’s far less time wasted in total than all that filing. So a contact sent you an email probably headed “Photo” or something like that (you can’t remember), about a year ago? Just search FROM so-and-so BEFORE when AFTER when HAS attachment. Bingo.

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