How to Deal With Email Overload

Email overload is one of the commonest productivity problems, and there are some aspects to it that do make it tricky to solve. They include:

  • We get a lot of emails. If you get just twenty a day and spent just three extra minutes on each one, that’s an hour lost each day! When you’re flooded with emails you’ve got to be super-efficient in dealing with them or they’ll bury you.
  • Email occupies a weird middle terrain between the formality and permanence of written communication and the informality and impermanence of spoken communication.
  • You’re getting many different types of emails thrown at you. That makes it harder to deal with them efficiently en masse via filters, signatures, autoresponders, and other time-savers.

Spending three hours answering emails when you can only budget one hour to the task does qualify as overgiving. This is true even if the emails are worth answering! However, it’s doubly true if the main reason you’re spending all that time is not because doing so supports your mission, but because: (a) it’s conventional to answer one’s emails, and you don’t want to break with convention, or (b) you’re afraid of offending someone.

The Solutions

Here are some solutions:

(1) Shut off your email and text alerts. Don't let your technology boss you around.

(2) Learn to reply tersely. Not every decision requires an explanation—and it’s often when we’re explaining, or trying to, that things get out of hand. Explanations can quickly turn into essays, and writing an essay when you didn’t mean to, and don’t need to, and know you shouldn’t be doing it, is often a fast route to procrastination. And even if we do, finally, manage to get the essay-email out, our long explanation can induce the other person to respond with an equally long explanation of their own, which adds even more unnecessary work. Instead of volunteering long explanations, therefore, try sending emails like this: “OK – thx.” and “Yes – and please let me know if you have questions.” Or, “It’s not a good fit for me, but thanks for asking.” And note that, in cases where you feel that an explanation is truly required, it’s often quicker to communicate verbally.

(3) Learn to not reply at all. Not every email requires a response. If you’re not the primary recipient of an email but only being cc:’d, for instance, then perhaps it doesn’t.

(4) Learn from mentors. Many successful professionals set a strict limit on their daily email use, which encourages them to be efficient. And they also...

(5) Let the technology do its thing. Autoresponders can be set up to automatically reply to routine queries. (This helps ensure an accurate, consistent response, too.) Filters can be set up to separate out urgent from nonurgent emails—and maybe you only check the “nonurgent” folder once or twice a week. And a signature line can be attached to all outgoing emails to let your correspondents know that you don’t reply to all emails. Customizing your email to boost your efficiency is a classic, excellent time investment that can yield an incredibly high return over the years, so take as much time as you need to do it. (And get help, if you need to.)

Some of these steps may take practice, but trust me – life gets so much easier and more fun when you stop overgiving. Stay with it!

For more information on this topic, see my books The 7 Secrets of the Prolific and Productivity is Power.

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