Managing Email Overload

by Janet Paulson
Clackamas Community College
Oregon City, OR

I’m not a Grinch, but if email were someone on my holiday list, they’d likely get a lump of coal. I mean, who else takes so much of my time and energy, but gives so little in return? Entire days go by with email consuming more of my waking hours than my family, friends or personal interests. There are times that I feel like I read and respond to email for a living. Don’t you feel like that some days? And it’s impossible to ever check email off your task list. Like out-of-control zombies, you delete one, and three more appear in its place.

Email is more than an annoyance, it’s an occupational hazard. It is one component of the flood of information that we face each day in and out of the workplace that actually can adversely affect decision making, innovation and productivity. One study found that people take an average of 25 minutes to return to a work task after an email interruption.

Does that sound unreasonable? Think about it. When you are disrupted by an email notification, don’t you then find yourself reading other emails or texting someone or surfing the Web before you get back to the task you were doing before you were interrupted? It’s hard to accomplish thoughtful work under such circumstances. In fact, another study at HP reported that the IQ scores of workers distracted by email and phone calls actually dropped an average of 10 points! I don’t know about you, but I need all the brain power I can muster.

Fortunately, there are tips to managing information overload and email in particular. I have employed several, and found some to be useful and others not so effective. But it’s New Year’s and time to make resolutions. Here are a few tips to managing email overload:

Turn off your email notification. This will minimize the constant disruption and the Pavlovian response of your brain to the new message.

Set up specific times during the day that you will check and respond to email.

Use your subject line to summarize your message.

NEVER Reply to All. Are there occasions that warrant Reply to All? Maybe, but most don’t.

Answer in brief sentences. Some business-type consultants say keep your response to five sentences.

Ignore it. One of my favorite tips. Have you ever noticed when you’re out of the office for a few days how those chains of emails that start out as terribly important are resolved by the time you get to the bottom of the chain? If it’s important, you will hear about it. Maybe someone will give you a call or even drop by your office.

Don’t use email for everything. Email is not the holy grail of communication. It is one option in a growing toolbox. There are times when email is the right choice, but sometimes a quick phone call or brief meeting can be the best way to share your message.

I hope your holidays give you a few peaceful days with people you love and freedom from the constant distraction of electronic communication. I wish the best to you in 2012.

Janet Paulson is NCMPR District 7 Director and public information officer at Clackamas Community College in Oregon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *