Mastering E-Mail Overload

How to Read and Receive E-Mail

Setting a good example only goes so far. You also have to train others explicitly. Explain to them that you're putting some systems in place to help you manage your e-mail overload. Ask for their help, and know that they're secretly envying your strength of character.

  • Check e-mail at defined times each day. We hate telemarketers during dinner, so why do we tolerate e-mail when we're trying to get something useful done? Turn off your e-mail "autocheck," and only check e-mail two or three times a day, by hand. Let people know that if they need to reach you instantly, e-mail isn't the way. When it's e-mail processing time, however, shut the office door, turn off the phone, and blast through the messages.
  • Use a paper "response list" to triage messages before you do any follow-up. The solution to e-mail overload is pencil and paper? Who knew? Grab a legal pad and label it "Response list." Run through your incoming e-mails. For each, note on the paper what you have to do or whom you have to call. Resist the temptation to respond immediately. If there's important reference information in the e-mail, drag it to your Reference folder. Otherwise, delete it. Zip down your entire list of e-mails to generate your response list. Then, zip down your response list and actually do the follow-ups.
  • Charge people for sending you messages. One CEO I've worked with charges staff members five dollars from their budget for each e-mail she receives. Amazingly, her overload has gone down, the relevance of e-mails has gone up, and the senders are happy, too, because the added thought often results in them solving more problems on their own.
  • Train people to be relevant. If you're constantly copied on things, begin replying to e-mails that aren't relevant with the single word: "Relevant?" Of course, you explain that this is a favor to them. Now, they can learn what is and isn't relevant to you. Beforehand, tell them the goal is to calibrate relevance, not to criticize or put them down and encourage them to send you relevancy challenges as well. Pretty soon, you'll be so well trained you'll be positively productive!
  • Answer briefly. When someone sends you a 10-page missive, reply with three words. "Yup, great idea." You'll quickly train people not to expect huge answers from you, and you can then proceed to answer at your leisure in whatever format works best for you. If your e-mail volume starts getting very high, you'll have no choice.
  • Send out delayed responses. Type your response directly, but schedule it to be sent out in a few days. This works great for conversations that are nice but not terribly urgent. By inserting a delay in each go-around, you both get to breath easier. >(In Outlook, choose "Options" when composing a message and select "do not deliver before." In Eudora, hold down the Shift key as you click "Send.")
  • Ignore it. Yes, ignore e-mail. If something's important, you'll hear about it again. Trust me. And people will gradually be trained to pick up the phone or drop by if they have something to say. After all, if it's not important enough for them to tear their gaze away from the hypnotic world of Microsoft Windows, it's certainly not important enough for you to take the time to read.

Your Only Solution Is to Take Action

Yeah, yeah, you have a million reasons why these ideas can never work in your workplace. Hogwash. I use every one of them and can bring at least a semblance of order to my inbox. So choose a technique and start applying it. While you practice, I'll be on vacation, accumulating a 2,000 message backlog for when I get home. If you want to know how well I cope, just send along an e-mail and ask....


Stever Robbins is an authority on overwhelm in the workplace. A veteran of nine startups (can you say: overwhelm to the max?) over 25 years, Stever co-designed the "Foundations" segment of Harvard's MBA program. He is the author of It Takes a Lot More than Attitude to Lead a Stellar Organization, and has appeared on CNN-fn and in the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily and Harvard Business Review. Stever and his monthly newsletter can be found at http://SteverRobbins.com/ .

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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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