Taming the Email Onslaught: How to Recover Your Work Productivity and Sanity

By on Friday, September 28, 2012
I get 150-200 emails during a typical workday – easily. I need to monitor news about my clients, get correspondence from those clients, network for my business, and stay up to date on developments relevant to the issues I work on.

And I’m not alone in feeling like I am drowning, on a daily basis, in email. The Los Angeles Times reported in August, “Recent studies found that the average employee spends a third of her workday dealing with email. On average, people receive 110 emails a day and double that in the office.” On average, people receive 110 emails a day and double that in the office.” I’m not alone in juggling what seems like a never-ending incoming missile inbox. Here’s a few tips from a working mom on how to tame the email tiger:

Only subscribe to information you need. Do you really need every Huffington Post email newsletter for what you do? Get rid of the nice-to-have newsletters that you never have time to read or set up a rule in Outlook to assign them to a folder so they can go there directly and not your inbox. Yes, it only takes a few seconds to delete something but all those seconds, and that feeling of drowning in information, can add up. Shift your LinkedIn, Facebook and other notifications to lower engagement settings. If those are important networking areas for you, set time on your calendar to really network and participate in online groups.
Unsubscribe mercilessly from anything you don’t really need. If you have a friend who sends you job posts that don’t interest  you, or jokes that are a waste of time, ask them to stop or assign them to junk mail.
Set up folders for the marketing gunk that you want from time-to-time but don’t want to see every day. This is great if you get coupons or sale alerts that you might not access regularly. This also works well if you work in one of those offices where people send out miscellaneous crap at least once a day to everyone in the office to let them know that there are donuts on the counter, or a bad smell in the fridge. Set up a folder for your inter-office communication – look in it once or twice a day.
Turn it off – even if only for a few hours a day. If you’ve ever finished the day and wondered where the heck your day went and what you accomplished – then you know that feeling. The feeling that all you did all day was respond to phone calls and emails and made no substantive progress that can be seen on long-term projects. Turning off your email – even if only for a couple of hours a day so you can focus on a project, boosts your productivity and gives you a sense of accomplishment.
Set up specific times to review and respond to email during the work day. You are the most efficient when you respond to email in bulk, not piecemeal, rattling through one message after another. Some people set up regular email response time blocks, when they go through and answer email in bulk.
Write less when you respond. Some work theorists believe that it takes recipients twice as long to respond to email, as it does to write it. While response time might vary a lot depending on the request, consider using fewer words when you write back. See the email charter for more advice on not inflicting heavy reading and response times on your email recipients – and this op-ed in The Washington Post on how we all need to lower our demands for responses and think before we hit send.
Try to avoid opening the same email twice. This is the same theory as not touching a piece of paper twice on your desk. Make decisions instantly – like delete, defer for later, respond now (less than 2 minutes), delegate to someone else (less than 2 minutes), file.
Use scheduling software or schedule polling (like Doodle). If you are setting up a meeting with a number of people, you’ve probably seen situations where emails go back and forth like crazy over setting up the time to meet. This amplifies when you involve a number of people, who are all getting each individual’s commentary and schedule back – resulting in all of them having more email to delete. A schedule polling function like Doodle can give you everyone’s availability without having to send several emails.
Configure your laptop, smartphone or iPad to allow you to deal with email when you are not in the office. Have a strategy for managing email on all your devices that is efficient or use a webmail system that synchs to all of them. When you travel professionally, try to continue to keep up with your email if you can, so you don’t have a huge backlog waiting when you get back. I synch my contacts from my computer’s outlook to my smartphone – it helps when I am on the go and out at meetings if I need to look up a number or email address.
If you work a high-stress job and really might have something urgent come in – set up a system that triggers so you don’t have to constantly look for information. Have someone text you, use your smartphone to only search for the terms you need to monitor, and set a schedule for when you check in if something is truly urgent or breaking. Some people really like the Salesforce helpdesk (, which tries to show you only high priority emails and collects the rest for you to deal with (it costs about $5/month).
Realize email can be a distraction that makes you avoid other work – or your family – and your behavior sends messages to others. Email can draw our attention and squander our time. It can be a wonderful time waster – making you reactive to the wants and needs of others – instead of proactively moving forward toward your goals and priorities. Try to set limits on how much time you will spend responding to email in a workday and get it under control. If you are pulling out a smartphone during family time to check your email constantly – what message are you sending to your kids? And to yourself? Take a break from email – you need it.
Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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