The typical office worker handles an average of 110 messages per day — and of that volume, about 18 percent is either spam or so-called graymail that consists of messages unnecessary or irrelevant to the end user, according to a 2010 study by market research firm The Radicati Group. In fact, the data deluge so overwhelms worker productivity that Atos, an outsourcing company, decided to phase out internal email systems by 2014 after discovering that an average employee spent a full 20 hours per week handling email.
Email overload is a problem but it can be mitigated in part through savvy email-management practices tailored to the volumes and mental processes of individual users.
Proponents of “boomerang theory” suggest that sending fewer messages will yield fewer messages in reply. Advocates like the consultants at Asian Exchange suggest that strategies like eliminating unnecessary “thank you” or “me, too” replies and reducing reply-all or carbon-copy messages will decrease the volume of one-line replies that you’ll have to process. Furthermore, cutting out FYI messages or messages like, “I got your email and will reply in a few hours” will curtail responses that provide no significant semantic value but nevertheless require processing time.
Tell people what to expect from you regarding email correspondence. Let them know what they should or shouldn’t send, when you typically read messages and how long it normally takes for you to respond. Outline escalation pathways — instant messaging, phone calls, text messages — for urgent needs.
When you send messages, make it clear in the body or subject line whether a response is needed. Phrases like “no response necessary” absolve people of the expectation to at least acknowledge a message; reminders to “reply to me, not to all” nudge people to refrain from swelling the flow of mail any more than necessary. Consider using the “bcc” (blind copy) field so that mass responses aren’t possible; you can always list the recipients within the body of the message.
Batch processing helps in two ways. First, setting aside a dedicated period to handle email leaves other parts of the day free to do other work with fewer email-related interruptions. Second, concentrating your email into a defined block of time may improve your focus on the email itself, leading to better inbox management and more thoughtful replies.
Resist the urge to check incoming messages frequently by disabling new-message alerts, or even by keeping your email program closed until a scheduled batch time. Better yet, block time on your calendar dedicated solely to answering phone and email messages.
Spam may be as inevitable as death and taxes, but you need not be a passive victim of an endless stream of ads for performance-enhancement drugs and cheap watches or of offers to hold money in escrow for imperiled Nigerian princes. Most modern email services, including Web-based programs like Gmail, include robust spam filters directly on the mail server. Desktop-based programs like Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird include tools for home or office users to set their own spam filters on the fly.
Less annoying than spam is bacn, the tech term for messages that you may have subscribed to and sometimes want, but usually don’t really care about. Mailing lists and solicited ads from retailers often fall into this category; you may be interested in the content occasionally but otherwise most messages are clutter. Email services like Outlook.com (formerly Hotmail) include a “sweep” function that files away, deletes or unsubscribes from many bacn senders; using the tool may reduce quite a bit of unwanted email.
Be careful with unsubscribing from email lists, though — unless you remember signing up to the list in the first place, a message with an unsubscribe link may merely serve as a sneaky way of confirming your email address. Think twice about clicking the link, or you may see an increase in your spam. Similarly, if your email program permits it, disable the automatic display of images from untrusted senders. Some spam servers include “Web bugs,” or tiny images in an email message that also confirm that a message has been opened, and thus that the address is a good target for future spams.
For right-brained thinkers, a hierarchical system of folders may bring order out of inbox chaos. A system of folders and nested sub-folders provides at-a-glance context for archived messages. As soon as you act on a message, remove it from the inbox to a dedicated folder.
For special-purpose tasks, like processing a large volume of incoming mail with similar characteristics, a set of rules works wonders. A rule specifies conditions that any given message must meet; when the conditions are met, a specific action follows. Rules may be run automatically or on-demand. For example, you could set a rule to automatically delete any unread message in the inbox that’s more than seven days old, or a rule to file in a “boss” folder any read message from your manager (or spouse!).
Filters present a middle ground: A filter shows a specific view of the inbox, making it easier to find messages by type. Something as simple as a default sort by received date is a filter, as is a display that shows only unread messages more than 30 days old.
Search is a special form of filter. Type in search terms, and the email folder will display all messages that show the term. Some people never sort their inbox and instead rely on variously complex forms of search to find old messages. The advantage to using search instead of a filing system is that your management time falls to about zero — provided your search skills are strong enough for speedy recovery of older messages.
For left-brained thinkers, colors, categories and tags may prove more intuitive. Because they’re not hierarchical, and because you don’t need to put messages in one place when several options could apply, tags offer one-to-one or many-to-one aggregation of emails. For example, a college student could use “academic,” “English” and “summer 2012 semester” as tags on a single message from a professor about an assignment in English class; each tag captures one aspect of the email, so the student could later pull up all related messages that have one or more of the same tag.
Services like Gmail use labels; programs like Outlook use categories. The two terms serve the exact same purpose. Outlook categories, however, permit color coding to visually differentiate messages on the screen.
Resist the urge to keep messages in email that really belong in some other place; some forms of email overload result from users treating their inbox like a one-size-fits-all filing cabinet instead of transferring information into a more appropriate tool. Convert requests for work into tasks; add meeting ideas to your calendar; store reference materials in a note-taking program.
Some mailing lists — especially recurring news bulletins — may be better consumed using an RSS reader instead of email. For example, instead of receiving daily copies of your favorite comic strip by email, you could just subscribe to the link’s syndication feed and read it later using the RSS reader of your choice.
Use templates to make sending messages more efficient, too. Whether you store the template in a Word file, an Outlook note, Evernote or OneNote, keeping boilerplate replies handy makes it easier to send complex messages. For example, if you prepare the skeleton of a weekly status report to your boss offline, you can just copy and paste the template into a new email message and fill in the new material.
Embrace the pseudo-Zen art of “Inbox Zero,” or the practice of tightly managing your email such that your primary inbox remains at or near empty at all times. Maintaining an empty inbox may provide a degree of psychological satisfaction that reduces the stress associated with an out-of-control inbox.
Email overload is as much a matter of psychology as technical effect; finding ways to remain comfortable with the email flow you have can reduce the feeling that things are overloaded. Inbox Zero adherents find value in staying on top of things such that they never have dozens or hundreds of messages waiting to be addressed in their inboxes.
Tactics for the Type B personality include the “accept the things you cannot change” strategy, best exemplified by Winnie the Pooh’s “Oh, bother” approach — if you don’t let a wild inbox bug you, then it’s not really overload.
Researchers Darryl Forsyth and Lloyd Jenkins of Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, suggested in a paper presented at the 2011 International Conference on Computer Engineering and Applications that for the standard techniques of reducing interruptions, message filtering and message filing, “with the exception of filtering, there is little clear evidence that any of these three methodologies can significantly reduce email overload.”
The upshot from their research is that many popular tricks for inbox management don’t appear to be justified by pure research. In fact, in some cases — like techniques for reducing interruptions — the suggested medicine may be worse than the disease, as some studies suggest that minor interruptions help to improve the speed of accomplishing a task or focus concentration on a task over a longer period of overall work time.
Forsyth and Jenkins remind us that there’s no silver bullet for reducing email overload. Instead, each person must pick from various strategies, buffet-style, to arrive at a solution that works for that person’s unique mix of volume, responsibilities, expectations and psychological predispositions.
In other words: Your mileage may vary. Good luck.
By Jason Gillikin, eHow Contributor