People have been complaining about the onslaught of e-mail almost since the day it was invented. We’ve all heard the statistics: Over 100 billion business e-mails are sent every day, with the average user sending and receiving about 100 messages per day. Reading and answering e-mail takes up 28 percent of the average worker’s day—about 2 hours and 14 minutes—leading 57 percent of workers in one 2010 study to say they feel overwhelmed by the volume. Unnecessary interruptions, especially from e-mail, cost the U.S. economy $650 billion per year in lost productivity, according to one research firm.
Obviously, electronic mail is a huge improvement over the pre-digital version. You only have to re-watch the 1985 Terry Gilliam film Brazil, with its tangles of pneumatic tubes and smothering drifts of litter, to be reminded how slow, awkward, and wasteful paper-based communications used to be.
But the very things that make e-mail so convenient—its speed, its informality, and its democratic nature, allowing anyone to write to anyone else—are also what make it a nightmare.
The speed of e-mail delivery increases the social pressure to reply in a timely way. The informality means people hit “send” without thinking about whether their message is clear, polite, thorough, or necessary. The openness of e-mail—with the sender in control, rather than the recipient—enables frequent intrusions and/or spam from people you don’t know and don’t care about.
The problem is getting so bad that one French company has banned e-mail for internal use, directing employees to use tools like wikis, social media, chat, and video conferencing instead.
That’s certainly one solution to the e-mail crisis—and in an upcoming series of articles, I’m going to look at a range of emerging technologies that are, in fact, helping to divert workplace communication away from e-mail and into more appropriate and manageable channels.
But let’s assume that you work for a normal company, where e-mail is still the main medium for business, and you’re basically on your own to manage your inbox. What then?
In previous columns, I’ve offered a range of suggestions for battling e-mail overload, from gamifying your e-mail experience to (in extreme cases) declaring e-mail bankruptcy. However, I’ve never brought the whole process together in one place. So I decided to make a list of the most important steps you can take to power through your daily pile of e-mail and reclaim your time for more productive forms of work.
My guiding assumption here is that happiness is an empty inbox. Every unanswered e-mail takes up precious space in your consciousness and adds a small increment of stress to your life, so it’s best to act on each incoming message, and then delete it or file it away, as quickly and efficiently as you can. Of course, no empty inbox stays that way for very long. But if you zero out your e-mail once a day, as I try to do, the messages won’t pile up to unmanageable levels.
Here are six tips for dealing with e-mail overload that I’ve found useful over the years:
1. Use a filtering or prioritization service to divert unimportant e-mail.
E-mail servers and e-mail client software are blind to the content of the messages they handle. From an engineering point of view, that’s probably a strength; from a usability point of view, it’s a disaster. What’s always at the top of your inbox? The most recent message, which is very unlikely to be the most urgent or important message. We’re all still waiting for someone to invent an e-mail management system that would rank all of our messages by importance and let us respond to them in that order. But in the meantime, you can sign up for a filtering system such as SaneBox, which learns which messages are less important to you by watching your behavior over time, and diverts the low-priority messages into a separate folder, where you can delete them en masse after a quick review. Boxbe and Gmail’s Priority Inbox system operate on the same principle, but I prefer SaneBox, which I’ve found to be more accurate in its sorting. It costs $5 per month but it’s well worth it—it saves me many hours of e-mail processing every week.
2. Don’t try to tackle your e-mail on a mobile device.
It’s nice that we can check e-mail from our smartphones and tablets—it means we’re less likely to miss important incoming messages. But it’s a big time-waster to use your phone or tablet as your main e-mail interface. I’m a skeptic when it comes to apps like Mailbox that give you lots of fancy multitouch gestures for moving messages around. The problem is that many e-mails require actual responses, which means entering text, and we all know how much slower it is to type on a virtual keyboard (or even a tiny physical keyboard, if you still have a BlackBerry). Sure, use your smartphone to quickly review your e-mail while you’re out and about, but then go back to playing Fruit Ninja. In my experience, it’s far more efficient to deal with your messages when you’re back at your desktop or laptop computer.
3. Learn the key commands built into your preferred e-mail client.
Keyboard shortcuts aren’t just for hackers and geeks. You’ll be amazed how much time you can save if you don’t have to keep moving your hand back and forth between your keyboard and your mouse or touchpad. Personally, I rely on the r key in Gmail to quickly reply to a message, the e key to archive a message once I’ve replied, and the o key to take me to the next unread message in my inbox. I’ve also reprogrammed Gmail so that the d key deletes an e-mail—the default # key made no sense to me. Once you learn a few such shortcuts, you can mow through your e-mail like you’re riding a John Deere. In this connection, I should mention an interesting new e-mail client called Handle that’s got … Next Page »
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