Can we survive the email onslaught?

Angry-Computer-Guy-09Driving back from deanery chapter last week with a colleague, the subject of emails come up—I cannot now remember why, possibly in discussion of ‘What does the rest of the day hold for you?’ The mere mention of the word elicited a deep groan; who looks forward to dealing with their email inbox? It is not the fresh and exciting ones that only came in today and promise new adventures that are the problem. It is the ones that lurk at the bottom, that have been sitting there for weeks and which you keep avoiding, but which stare back at you accusingly whenever you dare to scroll down that far—those are the challenging ones.

When I worked in a college, I calculated that I received, on average, 108 emails a day. This was a ridiculous extreme, and won’t be typical of most. But my impression is that the Church was a fairly early adopter of electronic communication, and now not only messages but important documentation comes by email. At one level that suits most clergy; since many are (in Myers-Briggs terms) more Introvert than the general population, having discussions by sitting at the computer in one’s study might be less demanding than a series of face-to-face meetings. But clergy are also, as a group, more iNtuitive than the wider population, who are more Sensing, and this can make focussing on the detail of email management more demanding than it would otherwise be.

Before saying anything else, it is worth reflecting on what appropriate goals should be for handling email. It might be nice to think we could empty our in-box at the end of every day (the ‘zero in-box’ philosophy). But since other people decide whether to send us emails, if we aim for that, we are in danger of handing over our diary to other people. (That might absolve us of responsibility, but it is not a great way to be effective at anything.)

Here are my tips for handling email well and staying sane.

1. Make use of folders

On Apple mail, the folders that appear in the left column are called ‘mailboxes’ and you add them by clicking the + sign at the bottom left. Folders are useful for at least three things.

First, they function as record keeping filing places. When I order a train ticket online, I move the confirmation email into my ‘travel’ folder. That means I not only have the details of the journey, but I also then build up a complete list when it comes to claiming expenses or completing my tax return.

Second, they can be used as temporary holding spaces. I have a folder ‘Do later’ for things which are not urgent or important, but which I might get round to at some point. (This is less emotionally painful than deleting something immediately!).

Thirdly, they can be used to direct emails coming in straight into folders other than your in-box—in other words, to do some instant filing for you. This is executed by rules you put in place…

2. Implement rules

On Apple Mail, rules are set under Preferences/Rules. You can add in a rule to direct an email to a folder you have created based on the sender, content, or any other characteristic of the email. This is a powerful way to keep your in-box uncluttered, especially from things that are regular communications rather than personal ones from individuals.

I have rules that put all Facebook notifications into a Facebook folder, all my church-related mail into another folder, my blog traffic into a blog folder, and all other subscriptions into another folder. This means that my in-box mostly consists of one-off mail from individuals; when I don’t have time to respond to all the other stuff, I can just focus on this.

3. Review your mail

I was once told ‘Email is like paper; you should handle it only once.’ I don’t think either of those things are true. Some email is like receiving a letter or a document, and needs to be handled accordingly. But other email is like someone putting their head round the door of your office or study and saying ‘Do you have a moment?’ It would be rude and unwise to refuse ever to give the moment that is being asked; but it would be foolish always to invite them in and ask them to sit down. Which you do depends on the nature of the request that it being made.

So I always look through my mail more than once. The first time is to decide ‘Can I deal with this straight away without disrupting my schedule?’ If so, then I might reply immediately. But if it needs a longer response, then it needs planning and filing—and probably a note in the diary allocating time to formulate a response or take action.

4. Keep track by replying

I receive quite a number of emails which include information about future events or which I might want to refer to again. I could create a filing system for it—but that takes time and effort. If, however, I send a simple reply ‘Thank you!’ and I have set my Preferences/Composing to ‘Quote the text of the original message when replying’ then all the details are included in my reply. This is automatically filed in my Sent email box, and I have set my Preferences never to delete Sent emails—I do that manually for anything more than about three years old.

If I need the details of the meeting, I just then need to search for the person who arranged it or the name of the meeting, and the information will be there. An alternative is to file the email in an ‘Information’ folder (see above on ‘folders’).

5. Use Your Signature

All email systems have the option to include a signature. This is not really a signature—it is more like the details you would include on headed notepaper. If you include all your contact and title information, it gives people everything they need to be in touch with you in future.

6. Make use of the Drafts facility

You can compose an email and save without sending it—which offers a great space for jotting ideas down or keeping notes. Rather than send a series of short emails to a colleague when you think of things, why not keep a draft email with that person’s name on, and add items as you think of them? This can then form an agenda for when you next meet.

You can also use draft emails for gathering ideas for a research project, for a sermon that is coming up, or for a meeting agenda.

7. Take time to think about how you are handling emails

Dealing with email can take up quite a bit of time in the day—so, as with any time-consuming task, we should reflect on how well we are handling this. Am I happy with how I am managing my email correspondence? What is going well? What am I doing wrong? Have I missed deadlines or meetings because I have not responded well or kept track of information?

There are two particular questions it is worth reflecting on. When is the best time of day to focus on email correspondence? Is it first thing, when I am alert and awake? Or should I be using that time for something else? Do I work best doing email all at once, or is it better to respond through the day? The second question is: how much time do I want to spend on emailing? In the end, we need to make a decision as to how important this is for us, and allocate time accordingly.

I have found these simple ideas make managing email much easier. I attach here a short paper I wrote for my institution to help with both managing and sending emails sensibly. It is worth paying some attention to how we use email—doing it more effectively can free up time, reduce stress and make life easier.

How to handle emails mark 3

What have you found that works well? Share your ideas in the comments below! (This is a revision of an article posted last year—but it is as pertinent as ever.)

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9 thoughts on “Can we survive the email onslaught?”

  1. One observation of mine is that e-mail suffers from not having negative feedback. Other ways of engaging in me do. If someone wants to chat with me after the Sunday service and I am in great demand, they can see this – a queue forms. If people try to call me on the phone and I am busy, I cannot answer. In both these cases, the ball remains in the court of the person wanting to communicate with me. And they then need to judge how important it is to engage me. In the case of e-mail, though, my inbox will just keep accepting new messages, so people can load me with task indefinitely and they have no indication of busy I am.

    I have taken, recently, to using the “out of office” feature when I am especially pressed to send automatic replies telling people that I may not be dealing with their e-mail very soon. This, at least, is a slight help.

  2. I do most of the above – plus, have particular times of the day I look at the inbox with a view to either replying / filing or deleting – first thing / lunch time and at about 4pm – that’s it.

    That way I’m not at the beck and call of the inbox.

  3. Good advice Ian. One thing I have hopefully learned in my old age after much experience is not to rush off replies to messages that may rub me up the wrong way. It’s a good idea to leave them in the drafts folder at least over night and then re-read and (usually) re-write the following day.

  4. IQTell has rescued me – outstanding implementation of Getting Things Done
    And Washington Post advice from a while back really helpful:
    10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral

    1. Respect Recipients’ Time
    This is the fundamental rule. As the message sender, the onus is on YOU to minimize the time your email will take to process. Even if it means taking more time at your end before sending.

    2. Short or Slow is not Rude
    Let’s mutually agree to cut each other some slack. Given the email load we’re all facing, it’s OK if replies take a while coming and if they don’t give detailed responses to all your questions. No one wants to come over as brusque, so please don’t take it personally. We just want our lives back!

    3. Celebrate Clarity
    Start with a subject line that clearly labels the topic, and maybe includes a status category [Info], [Action], [Time Sens] [Low Priority]. Use crisp, muddle-free sentences. If the email has to be longer than five sentences, make sure the first provides the basic reason for writing. Avoid strange fonts and colors.

    4. Quash Open-Ended Questions
    It is asking a lot to send someone an email with four long paragraphs of turgid text followed by “Thoughts?”. Even well-intended-but-open questions like “How can I help?” may not be that helpful. Email generosity requires simplifying, easy-to-answer questions. “Can I help best by a) calling b) visiting or c) staying right out of it?!”

    5. Slash Surplus cc’s
    cc’s are like mating bunnies. For every recipient you add, you are dramatically multiplying total response time. Not to be done lightly! When there are multiple recipients, please don’t default to ‘Reply All’. Maybe you only need to cc a couple of people on the original thread. Or none.

    6. Tighten the Thread
    Some emails depend for their meaning on context. Which means it’s usually right to include the thread being responded to. But it’s rare that a thread should extend to more than 3 emails. Before sending, cut what’s not relevant. Or consider making a phone call instead.

    7. Attack Attachments
    Don’t use graphics files as logos or signatures that appear as attachments. Time is wasted trying to see if there’s something to open. Even worse is sending text as an attachment when it could have been included in the body of the email.

    8. Give these Gifts: EOM NNTR JFF
    If your email message can be expressed in half a dozen words, just put it in the subject line, followed by EOM (= End of Message). This saves the recipient having to actually open the message. Ending a note with “No need to respond” or NNTR, is a wonderful act of generosity. Many acronyms confuse as much as help, but these two are golden and deserve wide adoption. JFF – Just for Fun

    9. Cut Contentless Responses
    You don’t need to reply to every email, especially not those that are themselves clear responses. An email saying “Thanks for your note. I’m in.” does not need you to reply “Great.” That just cost someone another 30 seconds.

    10. Disconnect!
    If we all agreed to spend less time doing email, we’d all get less email! Consider calendaring half-days at work where you can’t go online. Or a commitment to email-free weekends. Or an ‘auto-response’ that references this charter. And don’t forget to smell the roses.

  5. I’ve a different approach. Wherever that email belongs it is NOT in an email folder. That way you use your email folders as your to-do list and that is invariably a mistake


    1. Answer every one that can be done in 2 mins immediately
    2. Bin everything that can be binned very quickly
    3. Anything else is either a to-do action point, a piece of information to file and forget or relevant to a project on the go. File them all in relevant places
    4. For me that means Wunderlist for todos, evernote for filing and OneNote for project management. Yours may be different. But different kinds of info need different kinds of handling and leaving them all in the email and using that as a to-do list that anyone can add to with anything at any time is about the worst option
    5. Commit to only looking at email at agreed times, not leaving it on in the background and being distracted any time a new mail comes in, and zeroing it as regularly as possible

  6. I am surprised you omit using TextExpander to use a few key strokes to add a standard reply. I couldn’t survive without it from converting the abbreviation weeb to ‘with every blessing’ to other more lengthy oft-repeated responses. I also wonder how many of your readers would appreciate a MS Office version. Helpful though so thank you

  7. A few thoughts: 1. Folders can be subdivided into sub-folders. E.G. for hospital PPI work I have a sub-folder for each project. 2. I have two special folders – one called “Action needed” for items which I cannot deal with immediately (perhaps because I need a reply from somebody else) but which i mustn’t forget. The other “Activities and meetings” for those emails associated with items coming up in my calendar. 3. On Mac (and I think other email systems) emails can be flagged with a colour-code you choose. Useful for keeping track of emails in the Inbox, Action needed box and Sent box until you can can come back to them.


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