How to deal with email overload


Peter Bregman, in Coping with Email Overload, acknowledges the problem of how bad the ‘email habit’ can get:

I’ve come to the conclusion that I use email to distract myself. Whenever I feel the least bit uneasy, I check my email. Stuck while writing an article? Bored on a phone call? Standing in an elevator, frustrated in a meeting, anxious about an interaction? Might as well check email. It’s an ever-present, easy-access way to avoid my feelings of discomfort. […]

But it’s become a serious problem. When we don’t control our email habit, we are controlled by it. Everyone I know complains about email overload.

Email pours in, with no break to its flow. And like addicts, we check it incessantly, drawing ourselves away from meetings, conversations, personal time, or whatever is right in front of us.

But it’s not just the abundance of email that’s our problem — it’s the inefficiency in how we deal with it. Each time we check our email on the fly, we lose time pulling out our phones, loading the email, reading new emails without taking action on them, and re-reading those to which we haven’t yet responded. Then, back at our computers, we re-read them again.

Thankfully, I’m not gravely affected by the problem of email overload. Sure, every now and then I accumulate a bit of a backlog of emails that need a response (as for keeping up with the Inbox flow I tend to be up-to-date all the time, especially with incoming mail on my three main accounts), but never with emails that need an urgent action on my part. Replying to normal or low priority emails is usually an activity I leave for late at night, after working all day. But if work has been particularly merciless and has sucked up all my attention and energies, I might be too tired to handle emails at the end of the day, so I postpone the task to the next day.

By the way, I don’t think this is an inefficient method: all my daily activities are organised more by priority than type, and I generally process low priority emails in a reasonable time. There are, admittedly, some exceptions (long delays in getting back to a sender), but I never, ever ignore an email. And, more importantly, I always reply even when the answer to some request is ‘No’ or ‘Sorry, I can’t help you’, unlike many other people who too often use email silence as a subtle way to tell you ‘Don’t bother me’, ‘No way’, ‘Leave me alone’.

For those who can’t manage the constant flow of incoming emails, however, and often find themselves resorting to the ‘Mark All Read’ command, Bregman gives sound advice:

Instead of checking email continuously and from multiple devices, schedule specific email time during the day while you are at your computer. All other time is email vacation time.

We are most efficient when we answer email in bulk at our computers. We move faster, can access files when we need them, and link more quickly and easily to other programs like our calendars. Also, when we sit down for the express purpose of doing emails, we have our email heads on. We are more focused, more driven, wasting no time in transition from one activity to another.

I bulk process my email three times a day in 30-minute increments, once in the morning, once mid-day, and once before shutting down my computer for the day. I use a timer and when it beeps, I close my email program.

Outside my designated email times I don’t access my email — from any device — until my next scheduled email session. I no longer use my phone for email unless I’m away from my computer all day.

When the urge to check arises — and it arises often — I take a deep breath and feel whatever feelings come up. And then I focus on whatever I’m doing, even if what I’m doing is waiting. I let my mind relax.

Here’s what I’ve found: I don’t miss a thing.

I think it’s a good approach because it both deals with when/how to process emails, and with the stress related to the bad habit of checking emails compulsively.

(Via Shawn Blanc)

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