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Mastering E-Mail Overload

If your e-mail inbox is threatening to take over your entire workday, this ultimate how-to will teach you to deal effectively with the information onslaught.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge .

Being the owner of your own business, everyone wants a piece of you. So they send you e-mail. It makes you feel important. Don't you love it? Really? Then, please take some of mine! More than 100 real e-mails come in each day. At three minutes apiece, it will take five hours just to read and respond. Let's not even think about the messages that take six minutes of work to deal with. Shudder. I'm buried in e-mail and chances are, you're not far behind. For whatever reason, everyone feels compelled to keep you "in the loop."

Fortunately, being buried alive under electronic missives forced me to develop coping strategies. Let me share some of the nonobvious ones with you. Together, maybe we can start a revolution.

Readers Now Bear the Burden

Before e-mail, senders shouldered the burden of mail. Writing, stamping and mailing a letter was a lot of work. Plus, each new addressee meant more postage, so we thought hard about whom to send things to. (Is it worth spending 32 cents for Loren to read this letter? Nah..)

E-mail bludgeoned that system in no time. With free sending to an infinite number of people now a reality, every little thought and impulse becomes instant communication. Our most pathetic meanderings become deep thoughts that we happily blast to six dozen colleagues who surely can't wait. On the receiving end, we collect these gems of wisdom from the dozens around us. The result: Inbox overload.

("But my incoming e-mail is important," you cry. Don't fool yourself. Time how long you spend at your inbox. Multiply by your per-minute wage (divide your yearly salary by 120,000 to get your per-minute wage) to find out just how much money you spend on e-mail. If you can justify that expense, far out--you're one of the lucky ones. But for many, incoming e-mail is a money suck. Bonus challenge: Do this calculation companywide.)

Taming e-mail means training the senders to put the burden of quality back on themselves.

How You Can Send Better E-Mail

What's the best way to train everyone around you to better e-mail habits? You guessed it: You go first. First, you say, "In order for me to make you more productive, I'm going to adopt this new policy to lighten your load." Demonstrate a policy for a month, and if people like it, ask them to start doing it too.

  • Use a subject line to summarize, not describe. People scan their inbox by subject. Make your subject rich enough that your readers can decide whether it's relevant. The best way to do this is to summarize your message in your subject.

Bad Subject Line
Subject: Deadline discussion

Good Subject Line
Subject: Recommend we ship product April 25th

  • Give your reader full context at the start of your message. Too many messages forwarded to you start with an answer--"Yes! I agree. Apples are definitely the answer"--without offering context. We must read seven included messages, notice that we were copied, and try to figure out what apples are the answer to. Even worse, we don't really know if we should care. Oops! We just noticed there are ten messages about apples. One of the others says "Apples are definitely not the answer." And another says, "Didn't you get my message about apples?" But which message was sent first? And which was in response to which? ARGH!

It's very, very difficult to get to the core of the issue.

You're probably sending e-mail because you're deep in thought about something. Your reader is too, only they're deep in thought about something else. Even worse, in a multiperson conversation, messages and replies may arrive out of order. And no, it doesn't help to include the entire past conversation when you reply; it's rude to force someone else to wade through ten screens of messages because you're too lazy to give them context. So, start off your messages with enough context to orient your reader.

Bad E-Mail
To: Billy Franklin
From: Robert Payne
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Please bring contributions to the charity drive

Yes, apples are definitely the answer.

Good E-Mail
To: Billy Franklin
From: Robert Payne
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Please bring contributions to the charity drive.

You asked if we want apple pie. Yes, apples are definitely the answer.

  • When you copy lots of people (a heinous practice that should be used sparingly), mark out why each person should care. Just because you send a message to six poor co-workers doesn't mean all six know what to do when they get it. Ask yourself why you're sending to each recipient, and let them know at the start of the message what they should do with it. Big surprise, but this also forces you to consider why you're including each person.

Bad CC
To: Abby Gail, Bill Fold, Cindy Rella
Subject: Website design draft is done

The website draft is done. Check it out in the attached file. The design firm will need our responses by the end of the week.

Good CC
To: Abby Gail, Bill Fold, Cindy Rella
Subject: Website design draft is done

AG: DECISION NEEDED. Get marketing to approve the draft
BF: PLEASE VERIFY. Does the slogan capture our branding?
CR: FYI, if we need a redesign, your project will slip.

The website draft is done. Check it out in the attached file. The design firm will need our responses by the end of the week.

  • Use separate messages rather than bcc (blind carbon copy). If you bcc someone "just to be safe," think again. Ask yourself what you want the "copied" person to know, and send a separate message if needed. Yes, it's more work for you, but if we all do it, it's less overload.

Bad BCC
To: Fred
Bcc: Chris

Please attend the conference today at 2:00 p.m.

Good BCC
To: Fred
Please attend the conference today at 2:00 p.m.

To: Chris
Please reserve the conference room for me and Fred today at 2:00 p.m.

  • Make action requests clear. . If you want things to get done, say so. Clearly. There's nothing more frustrating as a reader than getting copied on an e-mail and finding out three weeks later that someone expected you to pick up the project and run with it. Summarize action items at the end of a message so everyone can read them at one glance.
  • Separate topics into separate e-mails...up to a point. If someone sends a message addressing a dozen topics, some of which you can respond to now and some of which you can't, send a dozen responses--one for each topic. That way, each thread can proceed unencumbered by the others.Do this when mixing controversy with mundania. That way, the mundane topics can be taken care of quietly, while the flame wars can happen separately.

Bad Mixing of Items
We need to gather all the articles by February 1st.
Speaking of which, I was thinking--do you think we should fire Sandy?

Good Mixing of Items
Message #1: We need to gather all the articles by February 1st.
Message #2: Sandy's missed a lot of deadlines recently. Do you think termination is in order?

  • Combine separate points into one message. Sometimes the problem is the opposite--sending 500 tiny messages a day will overload someone, even if the intent is to reduce this by creating separate threads. If you're holding a dozen open conversations with one person, the slowness of typing is probably substantial overhead. Jot down all your main points on a piece of (gasp) paper, pick up the phone and call the person to discuss those points. I guarantee you'll save a ton of time.
  • Edit forwarded messages. For goodness sake, if someone sends you a message, don't forward it along without editing it. Make it appropriate for the ultimate recipient, and make sure it doesn't get the original sender in trouble.

Bad Forwarding
To: Bill

Sue's idea, described below, is great.
----
From: Sue
Hey, Abner:
Let's take the new design and add sparkles around the border. Bill probably won't mind; his design sense is so garish he'll approve anything.

Good Forwarding
To: Bill

Sue's idea, described below, is great.
----
From: Sue
Hey, Abner:
Let's take the new design and add sparkles around the border.

  • When scheduling a call or conference, include the topic in the invitation. It helps people prioritize and manage their calendar more effectively.

Bad E-Mail
Subject: Conference call Wednesday at 3:00 p.m.

Good E-Mail
Subject: Conference call Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. to review demo presentation.

  • Make your e-mail one page or less. Make sure the meat of your e-mail is visible in the preview pane of your recipient's mailer. That means the first two paragraphs should have the meat. Many people never read past the first screen, and very few read past the third.
  • Understand how people prefer to be reached and how quickly they respond. Some people are so buried under e-mail that they can't reply quickly. If something's important, use the phone or make a follow-up phone call. Do it politely; a delay may not be personal. It might be that someone's overloaded. If you have time-sensitive information, don't assume people have read the e-mail you sent three hours ago rescheduling the meeting that takes place in five minutes. Pick up the phone and call.
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Stever Robbins is a venture coach, helping entrepreneurs and early-stage companies develop the attitudes, skills and capabilities needed to succeed. He brings to bear skills as an entrepreneur, teacher and technologist in helping others create successful ventures.

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