How to… Reduce Email Overload and Frustration

Many leaders and business professionals continually express frustration over wasted time spent handling the seemingly unending flow of email to and from their inbox. As Michael Hyatt indicated in his podcast How to Shave 10 Hours Off Your Work Week, some people have hundreds and even thousands of email in their inbox that they haven’t even read yet. (Michael provides a lot of terrific suggestions for handling email in this podcast as well as in many of his blog posts at Michael Hyatt: Intentional Leadership.) While the sheer volume alone overwhelms many people, additional frustration comes with the inability of so many people to effectively use email to communicate.

The following lessons can not only help reduce the number of email sent and received but also help make email communication in general more effective.

Learning from Twitter

In a word: brevity. The draw of Twitter for many lies with the brief messages. Twitter only allows 140 characters per message, forcing individuals to be as succinct as possible. One of the biggest problems business professionals say they have with email is the length and detail of many email messages. These same professionals say that shorter messages sent to one or two people provides a more effective way to communicate via email rather than a longer message that covers requests and “to do” items for 20 people. A good rule to follow is if an email message goes beyond one screen (meaning, recipients must scroll down to read the entire message), do one of two things. One, pick up the phone and call the recipients. Two, break the message into separate emails addressed to each individual with the specific action for that person to take.

Using To, Cc and Bcc Properly

Misuse of To, Cc and Bcc contributes to a great deal of email overload, and knowing when to use To, Cc, and Bcc properly goes a long way in reducing the frustration with regard to email. Individuals on the To address line should be those needing to take action based on the information in the email. Those in the Cc address line should be able to assume that the email comes as informational only and to allow the individual to “be kept in the loop” with no further action expected on their part. Finally, the Bcc address line, which really should be rarely used, is used when email addresses need to remain hidden for some reason. This might happen when sending an email to a large number of people with the intention of keeping email addresses private or to avoid that loooo….ng list of email address at the beginning of many email messages.

Use the Tools Available

One reason email gets out of hand has to do with the failure of many individuals to fully utilize the tools at their fingertips. Email programs themselves offer solutions for many problems experienced with email. One terrific example involves the calendar feature accompanying most email programs. Too often, email becomes the mode for setting up meetings, which unfortunately leads to confusion and muddies up email correspondence in general. Most email programs allow for viewing of coworkers calendar, which allows for ease with coordinating meetings. Most programs also allow for sending a meeting request, which takes place via email but looks slightly different than a normal email message, thus making it easier and quicker to process. Most email programs provide excellent tools for managing emails as well as appointments. Learning to use some of the basic features can greatly increase efficiency.

Know when NOT to Use Email

Probably one of the best ways to decrease email overload and frustration lies with knowing when NOT TO USE email. Here are some basic rules.

  1. When messages go beyond a single screen shot. If the recipient has to scroll down to read the entire message, consider picking up the phone and calling or walking to the recipient’s office.
  2. When emotions are involved. Avoid sending an email when angry or frustrated. Remember that email exists as a permanent record once it’s sent. You may cool down and apologize for an emotionally-charged email, but recipients can hold on to those messages, and there’s no way you can get rid of them. Most people are also not able properly and accurately express emotion in writing. Add to that the fact that “reading between the lines” and making assumptions can easily muddy up the intended message. Simply avoid emotionally-charged emails.
  3. When discussing personal information. Never forget that EMAIL IS A PERMANET RECORD. Avoid writing personal information, especially in a business setting. Once your message is sent, you lose control of who reads your words.

Simply put, pick up the phone or walk to the person’s office whenever email gets lengthy, when emotions are involved or when personal information needs discussed. Doing so not only decreases misunderstandings but also eliminates much of the worry over the wrong eyes reading sensitive information.

Even with the onslaught of social networking sites like Twitter, email still exists as a major mode of communication, especially in the business world. Unfortunately, it also exists as a huge source of frustration and overload too. Employ the above tactics for reducing email overload and frustration, and watch your efficiency and good moods increase.

DISCUSSION: What suggestions do you have for reducing email-related frustration and overload? What issues do you have with workplace communication, email related or not, that adds to your frustration and overload?

11 thoughts on “How to… Reduce Email Overload and Frustration

  1. One of the techniques I use is to put the entire message in the subject line with nothing in the body of the email. At the end of the message in the subject line I put (EOM). The reader then knows that's it for the message and does not even have to open the email. The other thing I try to do for the people receiving my email is that in the subject line I try to tell them if it is date specific; such as "read by 5/11/12 or a response is needed by 5/18/12 or this message will self destruct in 24 hours :)"

    • Both good ideas if everyone is aware of the protocol. My husband and I have discussed how companies could put guidelines like these in place as a company-wide sort of policy that would help make email more efficient.

  2. I think organizing Email better will help most people. It's also worthwhile to learn keyboard shortcuts, etc. to be more efficient. It's also wise to consciously write more briefly when appropriate.
    When we deal with so much Emails, just shaving a few seconds off of each one will really make a difference.

    • You're right, making small changes will add up over time to a big difference. Part of my goal is to help others be better at the emails they send to others. In that way, they are setting a better example, and they are hopefully not adding to the email frustration for others.

  3. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I get over 50 emails everyday and need to make sure my emails don't distract me or waist my time.

    When I have an email I need to respond to, I make sure not to put it off. I make it a point to quickly respond to it. I think doing this can help anyone become more efficient in dealing with their emails.

    Great post.

    • Thanks! Your approach of tackling email right away is a good one. In fact, I have read/heard from many experts to take care of it when it takes less that 2 minutes to do so. Keeps email from piling up. Any thoughts on how those who send email can help keep from adding to the overload of our recipients?

  4. Great article in an area which I am trying to grow my knowledge. I have read many posts on how to achieve inbox zero and how to manage your emails in general but in this instance you have taken a different approach which works well. I like the proactive approach to limit how much work is created from users creating emails, and I think a lot of overload could be reduced if readers were to follow your advice.

    Blatant plug at the end here, but please take in context with the content of your article. I work for Unified Inbox https://unifiedinbox.com/ and we are trying to amalgamate all forms of communication in one place, to increase efficiency and more importantly reduce overload. Please take a look as you have some sound ideas and your feedback on what we are doing would be greatly appreciated! =)

    • Thanks for the compliment and for commenting. I truly do think we feel like victims of email overload and don't realize how much we add to the problem for others. Maybe we can start an email revolution! I will check out your web site sometime this week. Today is a housework and errand day. I could write all day, but those things are important too. Thanks for stopping!

    • Checked out your web site and left a comment after your latest post. Also, subscribed to your posts in my Google+ reader. Looking forward to the reading tips you have. I have more ideas for the topic as well that I plan to post on at some point. Glad we could connect.

  5. Pingback: How to Deal with Being Misunderstood | Struggle to Victory

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