I am a connoisseur of email-reduction strategies, so I share this for friends and colleagues of mine who I know are struggling with this at the moment. The best way of dealing with having too many emails is never ‘answer all the emails’. Email overload is a systems problem. It manifests itself as an overflowing inbox but it is rooted in the way the system is set up. Answer all the emails and new ones will appear. We have to fix the system.
I will start by saying that I still have too many emails. But I don’t feel bad about it because I am trying to work on the system. And some of my system changes have been helpful and I can see are working. This post is not supposed to be a definitive guide but a few things to get you started.
Slow down the game
It’s tempting to think that I answer an email quickly, I get it out of my inbox and out of the way. But what I have done is sent a signal to the system – in this case my network of communicators – to send me another email in return. In my experience a faster response leads to more emails coming back. I actually need to send a different signal to the system. I don’t respond very quickly, so please don’t fire off a quick email to me as it won’t get you what you wanted.
This is an example of what Donnella Meadows describes as ‘right lever, wrong direction’. We have figured out that rate of response is the thing that we need to adjust, but rather than increase the rate of response, we can actually need to slow it down.
What happens if I slow down?
What happens when I slow down my response rate? My correspondent might find the information for themselves, if that was what they were looking for. They may discover that their request was not as urgent as they might previously have thought. Or they might realise that you are someone who has a limited amount of time available for correspondence. And so they should think about how to correspondence in the most thoughtful way possible. If that does involve sending an email, do it thoughtfully and don’t expect a quick response.
When we wrote letters to one another, we were limited by the rate at which we could write. No such limit exists with email. In half an hour I could fill the inbox of 20 closest correspondents just by sending out dumb requests and group emails.
So we have to stem the flow. Slow down the game to make the system work better. Put on an out-of-office that says, ‘I am only checking my emails once a day to enable me to work more effectively. Please be patient and I will respond when I can.’
Why was an email needed – enabling your correspondents
I often wonder why an email is needed. There are genuine cases when writing to someone is a good idea, but I often see email as a symptom of some other system that is not working.
Often the broken system is information communication. People don’t have the information they need to do their job. If you are someone’s boss, or you run a project or a programme, then it is your responsibility to make sure the people who rely on you have the information they need to do their work or participate. This does not mean however that you need to be standing there waiting to answer any questions. Rather it is about enabling them – enabling your correspondents. The following can help:
Access to information
In today’s messaging culture we get sloppy about providing a reference point where useful information can be deposited. Whether it’s a FAQ page, or project plan, put key information in places where people can find it, and train them to look there first.
You may be the blocker to someone else’s work by them having to ask your permission. This may give you a sense of control, but at what cost of your work and where you can add value. Find ways to give your correspondents more permission to act on their own initiative. Trust them and periodically review how the process is going. Tighten up permissions if you need to but then remember you are making a positive choice to receive an email from them about something.
Set up and use collaborative tools to avoid the need for emailing back and forth changes to documents. I find appointment finding tools like Doodle and appointment booking tools like Calendly have saved me so much time.
Some teams like to use messaging tools like Slack to organise threads of conversation. I like these for some purposes, but I do think they risk transferring some of the email system problems into a different system.
If you make the decision that you don’t want to be on emails all the time, then you change the way you communicate. For instance, knowing that there might not be such frequent to-and-fro, you have to be propositional in your arrangements. Instead of saying shall we meet up and waiting for a response, start with let’s meet up, how about at these times, send me a calendar invitation for the time that suits you.
Correspondence time – not always available
All of the above doesn’t mean we shouldn’t send emails, rather we should be more considered in their use and less frequent in their delivery. But every time I go into my emails I find something that I should have done, or someone that suddenly needs my attention. This distraction depletes my stock of energy to get the important things done that I need to do today.
To find the right balance, I have set up what I call ‘correspondence time’. This is a set time in the day when I look at and respond to my emails, messages, etc. If something needs a longer response, I will draft it during my other work time, but I will send it during correspondence time. Why delay sending? Remember, the greater the rate at which you send things, the more you are likely to receive back.
Set aside some fixed time for correspondence. If you go over it, then it has to wait until tomorrow. If this happens over and over again, then you have a clear indicator that you are still getting too many incoming emails, and you need to do some more work on the system. Unless, that is, you accept my final principle:
Don’t feel bad – you will never answer them all
I was reassured to read Oliver Burkeman’s book ‘4000 Weeks – Time and How to Use It‘ this Christmas. As he makes the case, the range of possible things we could do and things we could tend to is infinite. What we need to do, instead of stressing about not doing them all, is accept that we won’t do most of them. And then we can figure out, if there were one or two things we did do, what would be worth our time.