Coping with e-mail overload

In planning for our recent seven-week trip to Europe (of which I worked for four weeks and took three weeks off), I spent some time reconfiguring my e-mail setup to make it easier to manage, and I think that I was at least somewhat successful. Here are some thoughts, and feel free to share your own tips!

These days, I think it’s a given that we’re all in e-mail overload. The sources are almost too many to count; I receive e-mail from my clients, colleagues and friends (thankfully), from every professional association that I belong to, from Google Groups and Yahoo Groups that I’ve joined, from my daughter’s school, from Facebook and Twitter, from all the schools I went to, from the yoga studio I haven’t been to in six months, and so on and so on, to the point that even our garbage collection and electric companies send me e-mail newsletters every month. Part of an e-mail coping strategy has to be logistical (setting up better ways to deal with your e-mail) and part of it has to be conceptual (having the right mindset about e-mail).

First, logistics: If “checking e-mail” means that you’re deleting 90% of what’s in your inbox, you need to do some unsubscribing and filtering. This was step #1 of my pre-trip e-mail plan. Whenever I checked my e-mail during the month before we left, I took a look at each message and tried to assign it to one of three categories:

  1. I want/need to read this as soon as it comes in (messages from clients and colleagues)
  2. I want/need to read this at some point, but it’s not urgent (groups, some e-mail newsletters)
  3. I don’t want/need to read this at all

If a message fit category 2, I created a filter for it that bypassed my inbox. If you use the Gmail interface, here’s the Gmail support page on creating labels. Gmail also allows you to “bypass the Inbox” when you label something, so that you never see that message until you want to. If a message fit category 3, I unsubscribed from it. I tried to be merciless, because I really needed to slash my e-mail volume. This triage system cut my inbox volume by about 60%.

Now, concept: I’ve found that for me, the best way to cut the amount of time I spend on e-mail is to answer messages right away. I’m not great about this if something requires further thought or research before I can reply to the person. But a few years ago I read The Personal Efficiency Program, which promotes the concept of “processing” e-mail rather than “reading” e-mail. PEP advocates an e-mail strategy that’s similar to the “one touch” rule for dealing with paper; you only touch something once, either to deal with it or to toss it, and I think this is a good concept.

I’m efficient about replying to urgent e-mails, but I’m less good at replying to e-mails that are not urgent but need a reply. I feel like these strategies are helping, because I was able to get through my vacation backlog of 200+ e-mails in only one day. Any other thoughts on e-mail management?

5 Responses to “Coping with e-mail overload”
  1. Emma Goldsmith August 14, 2012
    • Corinne McKay August 15, 2012
  2. Caitilin Walsh August 14, 2012
    • Corinne McKay August 15, 2012
  3. Karen Tkaczyk August 16, 2012

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