Email overload — does anyone have the answer?

Spoiler alert! I don’t have the answer either and want to learn from others.

I remember the old days before email: we relied on talking to each other and on written communications that came on paper. On the day before a vacation I would finalize reports, make copies, Connected emailand stuff them into inter-office envelopes after I’d taken care of all my follow-up phone calls. Now on the day before vacation I have to get through all the email that can’t wait another week and generate new ones as I work through my to-do list.

It seems endless. Everyone complains about too much email. Can’t we just shut it off?  No, it’s the way we work now and there’s no going back.

Here are some of my tips:

Triage – I quickly scan for priority emails by subject, who it’s from and importance (some people actually use those flags as intended). Deal with what you have to in as timely a manner as possible. Repeat the triage scan every time you look at your inbox.

Use Automatic rules – I have 3 rules set up in Outlook that I rely on.

  • The “CC Inbox”. The rule says if I’m in the CC line, push it to the “CC Inbox”.  I review that folder throughout the day but not with the same urgency as the inbox. Over time, people who work for me learn to not CC me if they need a direct answer.  “CC” is for FYI.
  • The “External to Read” folder. The rule says if it’s from outside the organization, push it to an “External To Read” folder. That one I review far less frequently. I do scan it during the day, moving to my inbox any email from the vendors I’m working with or the organizations I’m active in. Sorry, vendors who do email “cold calls”: not only do I screen my calls but I also screen my email. Unsolicited emails don’t get, or deserve, the same attention.
  • The “high volume of one type of email” folder. This could be automatic notifications that come from an internal system or emails from a particular organization or involving a specific project. If there is a keyword you can create a rule and push them into a specific folder for batch review and handling.

Convert Email to scheduled task – Convert any emails that require work and have a due date to be a scheduled task on your calendar. How else will you get it done if you don’t schedule time to do it?

Use Reply All Less – We’ve all seen it: an email that goes to a large group and someone does “reply all” even though only one or two people need to see the reply. Model behavior for others — use “reply all” less.

Write Good Subject Lines – Meaningful and searchable subjects are a help to everyone. Subjects like “follow-up” or “need help” have no meaning and are hard to find later. Blank subject lines are even worse. Specify what’s needed – a meaningful subject followed by “FYI”, or “Need Action” or “Need Approval” communicates what you want. Include a due date in the subject if you have one. The people you work with will thank you for being so clear!

Pick up the phone – when it’s time to stop the back and forth email, pick up the phone. When email has become instant messaging, just call the person. When the nuances are getting lost, only a real-time conversation will work. When email gets nasty, find time to talk and clear the air. Nasty-grams are never ok, period.

I will never be someone with an empty inbox, all caught up on my email. But I will continue to refine how I manage it and try my best to be responsive. I want to hear your tips and techniques – maybe I’ll compile them for a future post.

23 thoughts on “Email overload — does anyone have the answer?

  1. When trying to get a quick point across, enter the information in the subject line & indicate eom at the end.
    (eom) end of message. Reader doesn’t even have to open the message.

  2. I think you stated the solution and that is scan the ‘subject line’ – I read rather listen to my mails through ‘read my email pro’ while driving to work. Speech controlled next, back, skip.. makes it very efficient.

  3. Maybe the US will follow Germany’s lead and prohibit any work emails after 6:00 pm. They are seriously considering this step after they have seen the link between an increase in mental illness with “always being available”. But, in the meantime, a good set of guidelines on how to manage the never ending pile of emails!

    • Sue Schade on said:

      Mary, interesting insight. I’ve heard of companies with such “bans” as way to change the culture around “always on”. Should be interesting to watch how all this develops.

    • Sue Schade on said:

      Myron, Amen to that one! One of my pet peeves is trying to find an email later and subject that I’m searching on isn’t the right one because of this.

  4. Chris Greene on said:

    If you don’t have time to read an email, don’t open it. Sometimes simply scanning the new mail subjects/senders is all you need to know at the moment.

  5. Joe Lassiter on said:

    Thanks Sue for the engaging and timely topic. My perspective is that perhaps we, as a department and as an organization, need to look for new tools to facilitate our productivity rather than trying to stretch email as an application beyond a communication tool. Examples are Asana (https://asana.com), Quip (https://quip.com) and Slack (https://slack.com).

    Thanks again for the though-provoking topics…Joe

  6. Steve Summers on said:

    Great post Sue! I echo the advice that rules/filters are critical.
    A smaller number of items filtered from the inbox = greater triage efficiency (especially on mobile devices).

    Here’s three of my favorite rules:
    1) Create a folder. Then create a keyword search that looks for anything resembling a maillist, newsletter, promo, etc and move out of the inbox. A good keyword resource is here: http://bit.ly/1vglk6G
    2) For Outlook users – Create a rule that autodeletes stuff that you manually delete immediately. For example: autoreply of calendar acceptance notifications.
    3) Auto delete the extra email you receive when you send an email to a dlist that your on. The rule will first look for the From: (you) and then the To: (a dlist that you’re part of). – some may not like this rule but I find it useful.

    • Sue Schade on said:

      Steve, thanks for sharing your tips. Curious how many rules you have setup. I’ve found that too many can be problemmatic in how they interact with each other.

  7. Mari O'Leary on said:

    Sue – As CIO, how do you stay current or “figure out when to jump in with the pilots” (Beyond the core..)? Given the persistent operational issues you face because of the complexity of your environment and realizing “UMHS will continue to grow in size and complexity” (Plan for the future) I would assume you are open to evaluating opportunities to improve service delivery while lowering costs.

    Word of mouth? Conferences/CIO Symposiums?

    • Sue Schade on said:

      Mari, it’s really all of these in terms of keeping tabs on what is happening in the market and what’s possible. As far as new technology pilots we’d jump in on, there has to be some kind of internal driving need. That can come from many different places within the organization. Balancing these costs and efforts with the core needs we absolutely have to address is part of the challenge.

  8. Mari O'Leary on said:

    That makes perfect sense Sue. It is my impression from other large organizations in the healthcare space (ie. Mayo Clinic, Aetna, Kaiser Permanente) a common driver is a focus on eliminating risk in application performance (especially EPIC workloads), as well as reducing infrastructure spend. Would you be open to a conversation to discuss what is important to you internally, beyond what I mentioned above, or is there someone I should be speaking with?
    P.S. Congrats on the grandchild! From Boston myself…

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