In a recent meeting of CEOs that I facilitated, the subject of being buried by emails came up. It was no small problem. Nearly every CEO stated that being inundated by emails throughout the day was a serious problem for them. They further postulated that if it’s a problem for them, it’s likely to be a problem for their staff as well.
You’re losing up to 3 Hours a day
Exactly how much productivity is lost by having to deal with a deluge of emails throughout the work day? That’s hard to tell, but this might give you an idea. If you are working on something, and an email pops in that you feel compelled to answer, you will have to stop what you are doing, move your focus to the email and read it. That’s could easily take one minute, perhaps more, depending on the length of the email.
Then you formulate your reply and type it into the email. This may take another minute, maybe two. This doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but if you do this 50 times a day (how many emails a day do you get? – you might want to keep track for a few days), that could be 100 to 200 minutes. My rudimentary math skills helped me figure out that this could be 1.5 to 3 hours a day reading and answering emails. And by the way, this doesn’t include the time it takes to get your head back into the game and return productively to the work you got distracted from by the email. That could easily be several more minutes to refocus each time you are distracted.
A number of things take place that make this situation happen:
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We are compelled to answer emails. It’s a form of operant conditioning (you psychology majors know what this is). We look at emails as a reward – something new and exciting – so we “must” see what they have to say. We never know what kind of information we will find in them. This is quite exciting, like opening a birthday present. Just like those people who walk around all day looking at their Blackberry or smartphone, relentlessly checking our emails gives us the same feeling. We become addicted.
We get caught up in the dreaded “reply all” syndrome. Someone sends an email to twenty people asking for something, and all the recipients feel some form of responsibility to let the entire group know their answer. Jane sends out an email asking who will attend Bill’s birthday lunch, and instead of each recipient responding directly to her, they feel the need to hit “reply all” to let everyone know they are going to be there. Woo hoo! Twenty more emails in my inbox that I have to review and delete. What a distraction.
As a leader, we get copied on emails so our staff can let us know what’s going on. They are either trying to keep us informed, or covering their asses. I can hear it now, “Mike, I’m sorry we lost that account, but I copied you on the email so you knew what I was planning on doing. You never said anything.” Talk about trying to pass the blame to me when something goes wrong. Everyone either wants your input (because they are afraid to make a decision on their own), or they want to be able to say they informed you of their decision (in case it goes wrong).
Emails are often too long, don’t get to the point quickly enough, or include multiple subjects. This makes reading them and figuring out what to do with them a real ordeal. Reading a lengthy email, interpreting random information or multiple topics, and discerning what’s important can take a lot of time.
So what can you do?
Getting control of the deluge of emails can take some time, but it isn’t impossible. Here are a few things that you can do immediately:
Create an email policy for your organization. It should include rules governing the size, construction, and handling of emails. For example:
- All emails should be no more than two paragraphs in length (and those aren’t long paragraphs!).
- Use bullets when possible. Concise points make for faster reading and comprehension.
- Never include multiple topics in the same email.
- No one should be copied on an email unless they have a need to know.
- The “reply all” button is off limits. It should only be used when everyone on the email needs to hear the response because the information is important to all of them.
- Email notifications should be turned off. This keeps constant distractions from happening.
- Emails should be batch processed…reviewed and answered at regular intervals. This can be three or four times a day. Leave them alone at other times.
- If you need to file or forward an email that has a subject line that isn’t relevant to the content, change the subject line to something more relevant before you file it, answer it, or forward it.
Don’t forget to filter
Another thing you can do is acquire email management and filtering software that learns about your emails and will file them according to their urgency and/or importance. There are numerous versions that can be purchased. Pick the one that fits your organization.
Don’t wait to get your emails under control
You can begin immediately by implementing the eight policies I listed above. If you don’t have an email policy that includes these points, create one today.
As a bonus, here is a link to a video about controlling emails that you might find helpful: