Last reviewed 8 August 2018

Gudrun Limbrick looks at the ever-increasing mass of email and how to take back control.

Email, as a means of communication, has now been with us for 50 years and, while letters changed significantly when they were our primary form of communication — from quills to typewriters to automated mail merges — email feels like it has not made such major changes: the same inboxes are facing us with the same barrage of unsorted missives. In fact, it is estimated that around 270 billion emails are sent each day, that’s about 2.4 million every second. No wonder we can feel as if we are inundated sometimes. And that is before we take into account the myriad messages and alerts from social media which are now also jostling for our cyber attention.

The immediacy of email communication has, of course, brought massive benefits to all manner of businesses and the sheer quantity of messages, and information that can be stored in virtual space rather than taking up actual space has revolutionised how we store communication. However, there is also a downside to emails based largely on these two attributes — their immediacy and our ability to store large quantities of them.

Facing the barrage of incoming communication

“Barrage” is the word often used to describe the influx of emails in a busy office. Many workers face a barrage of emails every day, most of which are demanding attention and all of which require at least a quick scan and a decision about whether to act, store or delete.

We tend to respond to emails in some fashion as soon as we receive them. When at our desks, we see each email as it comes in, hear each alert to say something new has arrived. Even if it is just a quick scan of the heading, we generally react to most emails as soon as they arrive rather than continuing with whatever we were doing at the time. This can be remarkably distracting as it takes time to refocus on the task in hand. Likewise, there is no time limit on how long it can take to respond to an email. They can take 30 seconds to scan and forward to someone else, or it may be a few hours to track down the answer to a question or embark on a new task requested by the email. In this manner, emails are very hard to accommodate in a structured time management programme. They sap the time we devote to them and impinge on the time we devote to other issues.

The never-ending nature of incoming emails can also be mentally challenging. A bulging inbox is like a to-do list that only ever gets longer. As more and more emails go unanswered, more come to weigh it down further. As you clear some emails, more arrive to replace them. The chances are, if you get to a stage where you have 20 unanswered emails, unless you can devote a day or so solely to the task of answering each, you will forevermore have a backlog of 20 unanswered emails. It can develop into a source of stress and anxiety for some people.

Because emails are so easy to send, and particularly, so easy to send to multiple recipients, many of the emails we receive are actually unimportant to us and often largely irrelevant. However, as if is not always easy to tell, each still has to be read. Many, in actual fact, tell us more about other people’s work than they do about our own. As we are copied into emails which have little relevance to our own work, we learn about what is going on in the rest of the company as we scan in a way that we would never have been privy to when we were reliant in letters and phone calls. Finding out about the business of other individuals and departments can be highly distracting and aid our own work very little.

Taking back control of our email

  1. Choose when you read your mail

    Turn off all of those alerts. This will allow you to concentrate on whatever you are doing without constantly being aware that emails are arriving. Set yourself three times a day when you will look at and respond to emails — say 9am, immediately after lunch and half an hour before you leave work. Nobody will have to wait a couple of hours for a reply and you can dedicate some time to your responses rather than dealing with them while you are also trying to work on something else.

    Switch off anything that is going to give you emails outside of office hours — laptops, phones and tablets. Provide an emergency number in case there might be a genuine emergency, but otherwise leave reading, and thinking about, and responding to emails until the next working day.

    Fix “do not disturb” times when you can devote your time to a piece of work, or a face-to-face conversation, without emails coming through to you.

  2. Keep them appropriate

    Encourage your team/department/company to limit the copying in of emails. Some teams appear to feel that people need to prove they have done something by copying everyone into their emails. People should only be copied in if their input is needed.

    Keep all emails as brief as possible and action-focused. Make it very clear what your reason is for sending the email and what needs to come out if it. If there is no clear reason and it has nothing to achieve, you probably do not need to send it. Certainly, no one needs to receive it.

  3. Keep them manageable

    Avoid keeping emails that you have no intention of dealing with. If it needs nothing from you, delete it. If you need to keep it for future information, put it into another file where you will easily be able to find it.

    If you find your inbox is starting to bulge at the seams, put an hour in your diary to focus on it. While it might seem like a luxury to spend time solely on emails, a dedicated hour before it gets too bad will save significant time and stress later on.

Email communication has been a significant boon to the way in which we can communicate with each other. However, many of us have tended to become passive recipients of a barely manageable bombardment of emails. We respond to them as and when the alerts beckon us and we accept everything as it is sent to us. Making the decision to not be at the beck and call of emails but to make our own decision about when we look at them is liberating and less distracting in the average working day. Changing the ethos of a team to ensure that copying in is only done when there is good reason to do so and that emails are only sent when there is a specific purpose can reduce the time everyone spends on sifting through their emails. Emails may be cheap and immediate, but the time we spend on them can be expensive and we generally don’t need to give an immediate response.