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Taming the email monster

Business · 4 min read

Taming the email monster

Would you leave your office open so that anyone could just walk in and demand your attention? Of course not, but in a way, this is how our email inboxes work.

They're all people just strolling in and having their say. Important people. Ridiculous people. All equal until you've clicked, read and made the decision to read on or delete, by which time your concentration has evaporated. We all need to learn how to wrestle our time from the jaws of the email monster. Here's how.

Can businesses do without smartphones and emails?

Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post, wrote in 2016, “Emails have somehow taken over all of our lives – it’s time we changed that.” She saw that when she headed off on annual leave, her colleagues would switch on their automatic out-of-office message, but still rapidly respond to emails. She realized that “we are addicted [to email] because once we see an email, we feel obligated to answer it.”

The Huffington Post tackled their issue by creating technology that completely eliminated the temptation of emailing while on leave. Any messages sent to an employee on leave are automatically deleted. The system then replies to the sender, asking them to try again when the person is back in the office.

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There are other CEOs who take this idea even further and don’t use smartphones at all. Sheldon Yellen, CEO of US$1.5bn company BELFOR Property Restoration, admits that he “can’t immediately answer emails, stay current with breaking news or see my friends’ Facebook discussions.” But he makes up for it “with the ability to have real conversations and get things done.”

He says, “Rather than hide behind a keyboard, I call people – and people know they can call me. Most people’s online personalities differ from real life. It’s to your advantage to engage people verbally, by phone or in person, to make sure you understand them." Although email has the advantage of creating a record of a conversation, it's much easier to tell whether someone's telling the truth when you can hear their voice. Amol Sarva, the CEO of office-space startup Knotel, says, “Walk around, because chances are the people who email you, don’t see you enough ... don’t email things that should be saved for meetings.”

woman looking at mobile phone screen

The rise of instant messaging

New instant messaging (IM) platforms like Basecamp, Google Hangouts, Trello and Slack, have been helping employees get things done in swift, innovative ways. With IM, you know that a message will be relevant, as it won't be competing with the multitude of other arrivals in your email inbox. But does IM save time and increase productivity? These newer tools can end up being just another thing to check. 

So how long should you be spending on email?

In her 2016 book, ‘Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done’, productivity expert Jocelyn Glei writes, “Most emails get opened for the first time on a mobile device. And a message that looks fine on a laptop might look epic – in a bad way – on a phone. You always have to take into account that someone will be processing that message on the go, in an impatient state, at a glance.” With this in mind, make sure that your emails get straight to the point (without being abrupt). 

‘Inbox Zero’

In 2007, productivity hacker Merlin Mann developed the concept of ‘Inbox Zero’ – where all emails are handled with one of five responses: ‘delete, delegate, respond, defer or do’. When new emails land, move them to one of these four folders: ‘Inbox’, ‘To-do’, ‘Follow-up’ or ‘One day’.

Apps on a mobile phone

The only emails that stay in your ‘Inbox’ should be urgent messages that can be handled quickly. Drag non-urgent emails, and those requiring more than a three-minute response, into your ‘To-do’ folder. Move any emails with tasks that you've delegated to the ‘Follow-up’ folder. ‘One day’ emails don’t need response or action – they’re things you’d like to read and/or review at some point in the future.

Don’t be afraid to delegate

If you ask any leader how they focus on achieving long-term success while dealing with a deluge of emails, most will say they couldn't do it without their personal assistant (PA). PAs and executive assistants (EAs) are often found at the heart of organizations, working cheek by jowl with chief executives and board members – playing a key role in supporting decisions. We don't all have the chance to work with a dedicated assistant, but it's worth acting as if we do, by delegating tasks whenever possible. Mathilde Collin, CEO and co-founder of email productivity app Front says, “One of the best ways to avoid being buried under a daily avalanche of emails is to know when it’s time to delegate. Get in the habit of passing messages to your team leads when it’s relevant to them. This has two benefits: it’ll empower your team to know you trust them with replies, and it’ll save you from having to hunt down information to reply.”

Email tools to boost your productivity

There's a vast range of apps available to help us with our email. For instance, the built-in 'virtual assistant within email' app Astro, can remove clutter, create follow-up reminders, and highlight emails that might need attention. Add-on email app Newton has powerful features such as read receipts, scheduling, cross-platform snoozing, rich sender profiles, and connections to third-party apps. Plus, there's a Tidy Inbox feature that can delete and unsubscribe junk emails in bulk.

Take a look at our roundup of personal productivity tools here.

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