5 Tips For Managing The Email Deluge

Ever find yourself thinking, “I need more email”? Ever feel disappointed because you don’t get enough in your inbox?

I didn’t think so. Personally, I get between 200-300 emails a day, as many of you likely also do. That’s enough email to completely paralyze you if you can’t deal with the volume effectively. You could spend your entire day working through your inbox, at the expense of the action items you actually have to do.

I’m continuing to work through the issue myself, but here are five pointers I’ve learned for managing the email deluge.

1. Read once

Ever find yourself reading an email, realizing you’re not sure what to do with it or that you don’t have time to deal with it, and just moving on to the next thing in your inbox? I know I have. Unfortunately, that leads to your inbox becoming a repository for difficult email, not a true inbox.

Try to force yourself to only read emails once. Once I’ve read an email, I take a leaf out of Getting Things Done (affiliate link) by David Allen and take one of several actions:

  1. Deal with it – if it’s going to take less than two minutes to handle, just do it
  2. Schedule it – file it in an “action” category and book time in my calendar to deal with it
  3. Delegate it – assign it to someone on the team to handle
  4. File it “to read” – lots of items are sent as “FYI.” I file these in an “information” category for review when I have time. This is a recent addition for me, as I was finding my “action” category was getting clogged with dozens and dozens of action items (thanks to the book Workarounds That Work (affiliate link) by Russell Bishop)
  5. Archive it – file it in an archive folder for future reference
  6. Delete it – get it out of the inbox to keep things manageable

2. Pay attention to the “To:” line

The body of the email isn’t the only part that sends a message – the address fields also send a message.

If I see that I’m in the “To:” line of an email, I pay attention and look for action items. If I see that I’m in the “cc:” field on an email, I treat the email as an FYI and review when I have time. (In some workplaces, this may require a little expectation-setting with colleagues)

3. Ensure the subject line is relevant

This is an are where I know I need to improve – ensuring that the title of an email remains relevant to the conversation. In the past I’ve sent far too many emails with “FYI” as a title. It could be worse (at least the recipient knows it’s not urgent) but it would be better if it read “FYI – media coverage of XYZ”, “Deadline: Need feedback by Feb 18” or the like.

In cases where the topic of the email changes during the email chain, change the title!

Keeping the subject relevant lets recipients know what the email is about, and whether they need to pay attention to it.

4. Avoid “reply all”

Does everyone in the email chain need to be on it? If you don’t need to include everyone on a reply, do them a favour and remove the unnecessary people from the chain. No-one sits there waiting for the next group discussion to erupt; you’ll also find that you get fewer emails as a result, as there are fewer other people to hit “reply all” at their end.

5. Default to other media

Many of us co-locate in offices for a reason. Other forms of communication are richer and offer more cues than email. If you have the option, walk over and talk to someone, or pick up the phone and call them. Not only will you cut down on email, you’ll get things done quicker.

This is especially important when something is urgent. Email is an asynchronous medium – it can be read later. In fact, it’s intended for that. I spend a large proportion of my time in meetings and not checking email. In that situation, an urgent request is likely to go unheard. If you need to reach someone urgently, pick up the phone or walk over to them. Don’t rely on them checking email constantly.

What else?

I know my system isn’t perfect, and I still struggle with the email deluge on a daily basis. You likely have your own way of managing the volume. What tips would you add to the list?

(Image: jon|k)

16 Responses to5 Tips For Managing The Email Deluge

  • Amusing reading this as I have a similar 5-tip article on email coming out on my blog next week.

    • Hey Ari,

      Great – feel free to swing by and leave a link here for people when it’s live!


      • Heh. The link is http://ariherzog.com/5-email-tips/ — but you can’t see it yet. I’m linking to your article so you may see a trackback. Different constructs though, as you’re focusing managing the incoming stream and I’m focusing on productivity and time management on email.

  • This year I made a New Year’s Resolution to stop saying “thanks” every time someone sent me a document or a piece of information by email. It was a hard habit to break, I feared someone might assume their email wasn’t on my radar or hadn’t made it onto my task list, or worse, that I wasn’t grateful for what they have done. Now I save my thanks for those times when I am actually grateful and I have probably cut down the number of emails I send down by at least a third. It’s really helped my productivity, now I have more time to comment on blogs!

  • Great reminder, and thanks for the laugh from your opening sentences! No, not once have I thought, gee, I need more email…

  • I feel your pain, mate.

    I’ve set up a bunch of filters depending on keywords in the title, as well as who’s been whitelisted and who’s been set up to “Read Later” and “Ignore”. Working well so far, but it can still be a lot to wade through at times.

  • I try to help folks with their email by managing my own sending habits. Though admittedly I slip and forget my own best practices, but I find email flow can be reduced by making things clear from the get go:

    * Calling out action items by either bolding or bullet listing names with things needed, or reiterating in the final paragraph.
    * If someone is asking me to do something, reiterating back to them what it is they’re asking me to do. Though this seems like it may add to the deluge, it confirms that I’ve got the message and it identifies upfront any disconnect between what they’re asking me to do and what I thought they were asking me to do. This one email that may seem like a nuisance can eliminate dozens of emails that would follow.
    * Likewise, if I’m making the request, remember to ask others to do the same and just send me a quick note letting me know they’re good to go and repeat back to me what they’re doing.

    In my own inbox I try not to trash any of my emails. Memory is cheap and abundant. Search is pretty effective. By dropping previously read mails into a file folder I can save everyone from “can you send me this again” or “what did we say to…” type emails by doing a quick search.

  • Very good post! The author you’re the best!

  • My biggest Saviour are Gmail filters, I have lot of emails coming in that might be a resource or some newsletters that might read in my leisure time, so I’ve set-up label general and also these emails skip my inbox and right away go to this label. If I have time I check it, if not I just delete all of them.

    Also I’ve asked everyone in my company to use a structure for their email titles, so it is easier to sort them both for me and my filters. Of course you can’t do it to everyone, but every bit of a cut in email time helps.

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