Make Your Email More Efficient

Implement these simple strategies for digging out of an unmanageable mountain of email.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to keep rolling the same boulder up a hill, over and over again, for eternity. For many employees, handling email is an equally futile task — a never-ending avalanche of messages interrupted only by feeble and futile attempts at inbox management.

“The statistics are scary,” says Randy Dean, a time-management consultant ( who specializes in ratcheting up email efficiency. “On average, professional workers spend a little more than two hours a day just managing their email … and check their inboxes 15 times a day. And nearly 25 percent of professionals check their inbox 20 or more times a day. They’re like Pavlov’s dogs responding to the ringing bell.”

As for the financial impact of inefficient email practices, estimates vary widely. One consulting group, Contatta, says shuffling emails around costs American businesses a staggering $1.8 trillion a year. (That’s based on the following figures: A median wage of almost $24 an hour, 637 hours a year spent on email per employee and 118 million workers using business email.)

The accuracy of that estimate is debatable. But one thing remains certain: While it may be difficult to quantify, inefficient use of email is a common workplace problem that stifles productivity and squanders valuable time, says Dean, the author of Taming the E-Mail Beast: 45 Key Strategies for Better Managing Your E-mail Overload (and Regaining Your E-mail Sanity!). In fact, it’s probably dumbing down workers as well, according to one recent study that showed constantly checking email causes people to lose up to 10 IQ points. “You’re literally making yourself stupid,” Dean notes. “It greatly diminishes your ability to hold a cogent thought and act on it.”

Another study indicates it takes us as much as 20 minutes to regain our momentum at work after an interruption. Add all this together — not to mention meetings, texts, phone calls and social media — and you have what Dean calls a crisis in workplace focus. “Frankly, it’s amazing that anyone gets anything done,” he says. “I’m seeing a plague of this (constant distractions) in the organizations I work with.”

The irony here is that the very technology that was supposed to increase workplace productivity and make communication immensely easier has, in most cases, accomplished the exact opposite. But it doesn’t have to be that way, Dean suggests. “If we can get back to smarter and saner usage of email, we can get back to the point we were at when email first came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when people thought this tool would help them get more work done better and faster. We can still do that — if we get some significant dysfunction out of the way.”

One of the biggest contributors to dysfunctional email practices is how employees manage their inboxes. At one of his recent seminars, Dean asked attendees how many messages they have in their inboxes. About 40 percent admitted they had more than 1,000 messages. Can you say “time suck?” Sure you can.

This efficiency-stifling accumulation occurs primarily because the average worker views the same emails anywhere from three to seven times, Dean says. That’s because after they open their inbox, they step onto an email treadmill where they read messages, decide they don’t have time to immediately deal with the issue at hand, then read it again a day or so later because they can’t remember what’s in it. Rinse and repeat, Sisyphean style.

“If you do nothing with an email after you read it, you’re wasting time,” Dean emphasizes. He suggests developing a “decision tree” in which employees don’t close an email until they’ve decided how to handle its contents. “Make a decision,” he urges. “That doesn’t mean you get that task done right away, but at least figure out what needs to be done the first time you look at the email.

“The second piece of this strategy involves doing quick tasks right away, the first time you see them in an email,” he continues. “There’s a ton of inherent logic here. If you’re not keeping the quick tasks moving along, they’ll bury you. It takes only 30 seconds to send a reply, as opposed to doubling or tripling the task by looking at it over and over.” Dean also suggests setting up folders by subject to keep emails organized into more manageable chunks — and evict them from the inbox.

Another strategy centers on developing a strict regimen for minimal email viewing. Just as dieters try to limit food intake, email addicts need to wean themselves off regular, habitual inbox checks. How many times you need to check email varies by job; those with client-centric, customer service jobs, for example, will need more frequent checks than someone who does project-based work that requires long stretches of intense focus. The bottom line: Most people don’t need to check email as often as they do.

“In essence, you need to look at your job and determine how often you need to check in order to be appropriately responsive, yet balance that with the fact you need blocks of time to get things done when you’re not working with email,” he explains.

OK, that’s all well and good, but what about those important missives from a boss or other higher-ups? There’s a simple solution, Dean points out: Email programs such as Outlook and Gmail allow you to set up notifications that will alert you when emails arrive from people you deem important enough to warrant work interruptions.

One last technique requires effective use of computerized calendars and task lists. If emails contain something other than quick-action items, put them on a calendar or task list, then hit delete, Dean says.

If you follow these strategies religiously, it’s actually possible to attain zero-inbox status. “That doesn’t mean I’ve gotten everything done,” Dean notes. “It’s just that your inbox is not a good project- or task-management tool. An inbox exists only to process items, not to manage work, projects or people.”

Dean concedes that dropping deeply ingrained bad email habits in favor of a more effective management strategy is difficult. “But you have to look at the bigger picture — that constantly checking your inbox literally makes you clinically stupid,” he says. “And that isn’t good for you or anyone around you at work. It’s far better to control email than let it control you.”

Unless, perhaps, you simply enjoy pushing the proverbial boulder uphill, over and over again.


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