Email overload - the modern curse

by Dr Monica Seely, Mesmo

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20 Dec 2011

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Emails

IT'S A FACT, email is the curse and probably most cursed of our 21st century communication methods. Latest email trends suggest that on average across the world we each receive about 100 emails per day. We receive a few less in Europe at about 70 but the range is huge. A few of us only receive 10 per day but many of us are receiving up to 200 emails daily.

To make matters worse, new research from Mesmo shows that a quarter of us now expect a response to email within a quarter of an hour, over a third within two hours and two thirds of us within half a day. A few years ago a couple of days or even a week was considered an acceptable response time. Additionally, many of us believe we have to respond to most emails immediately especially if they are from management or customers.

That's a lot of stress - self-imposed or otherwise. Daily we all struggle with bulging inboxes that seem to constantly refill. We not only have to read our messages but ensure we answer all the important ones. However, with all the pressure and acceleration of expected response times are we and our colleagues allowing enough time to check our responses are correct? That they will not breach the law, upset the sender or make us or our employer the star of the next email media disaster?

We need to ask ourselves how much of what we receive do we really need? Most people say not more than 75% and about 8% would say as little as a quarter. This welter of unwanted email creates many additional strains on people but simply deleting it is not the answer. To improve productivity and reduce email stress you need to address the underlying causes, improve how you manage your own inbox and the email behaviour of those you work with (internally and externally).

Email Addiction - the hidden ‘disease'

For some, dealing with their email has become a form of addiction. They feel they must check each new email immediately it arrives regardless of what else they are doing or where they might be. How many times have you seen people checking their email on their smart phone or ‘crackberry' in meetings? How many times have you done it when you should really be focusing on the subject under discussion or listening to your partner?

Email addiction grows as a result of our ‘always on' culture. Getting our ‘fix' is easy with all the new technologies like smart phones, iPads, tablets etc which mean we can all be available 24x7x365. For some addiction is self-imposed or imposed by others expectations that whatever time of day or night the recipient will respond or at least read their email.

Our latest research reveals that less than a quarter of us think a response within one day is acceptable and only seven percent of us are prepared to wait two days. However, we display double standards as almost two thirds (60%) of respondents admitted they only sometimes left people sufficient time to respond to their emails.

Cause, effect and cost

So what are the underlying causes of all this excess email, and unrealistic expectations? Key causes include over reliance on email - often an alternative such as a conversation can be more efficient and effective. Poor email etiquette, meanwhile, can create endless rounds of email ping-pong as sender and recipient try to work out what each is saying. Then there's playing email politics where too many unnecessary people are added to the Cc box. Even responding too quickly can result in knee jerk responses rather than taking the time to give a considered response and/or asking the right questions of the recipient.

And what about the cost to individuals and their organisations of email overload and addiction? The key costs include lost productivity of up to 21 days per person per year, lost business through not replying properly or missing a key email, grossly distorted work-life balance leading to increased stress and additional servers and band width needed to keep the email servers running efficiently.

The Cure

The cure to reclaiming your life and the lost productivity is to unshackle yourself and your organisation from the inbox. It's a simple five step process (Figure 1).

Step 1 - Stop the time thieves: manage your time at the inbox

1. Take control of your time. Switch off new message alerts. Avoid constantly dipping in and out of your inbox. Every time you let an interruption distract you (like a new email), it adds five to fifteen minutes to the time taken to complete the original task.
2. Manage people's expectations. Work out when you can reply. You set the pace and time scales. Send a holding email letting the sender know when you will respond in full.
3. Reduce the volume of email you receive. Prioritise your email using the Pareto Principle - which says that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the cause. Remove yourself from as many unnecessary lists as possible. Use rules to folder less important emails as they arrive (eg systems updates, newsletters etc).

Step 2 - Choose when to email

4. Be selective about when you use email. Avoid defaulting to email: talk first , email later. Email is only one communications medium available to us. Sometimes instant messaging is the best option.

Step 3 - Use brilliant email etiquette

5. Your goal should be right message right first time. Within five seconds of receiving an email from you, the recipient will have formed an impression of you from the tone and layout of your email. So convey the right image and message, using brilliant email etiquette. For example, include a professional greeting and sign off. Write in clear concise well structured English and use spell check.

Step 4 - Manage your use of attachments

6. Attach first then write the email. This saves many wasted rounds of email ping-pong when you forget the attachment.
7. Check the size of the attachments to ensure they are within limits. It stops emails being held up if they are too big for a company's permitted file size.

Step 5 - Reduce cyber crime

8. Check that what you write is legal and does not breach any of the common Acts applying to email like Data Protection. For example when emailing a list of people put their names in the Bcc box not the Cc box. This also limits the scope for endless rounds of ‘Reply All'.
9. Keep your Out of Office message safe and simple. Don't disclose your location (especially when on leave) or too much information about the rest of the organisation's business.

You are worth it!

These are nine tactics to help cure email overload and addition. Applied properly they will give you back around 45 minutes a day and help you get a better work/life balance. However, to really leverage the efficiency gains you need to cajole others to improve their email behaviour and etiquette as shown in Figure 2. This may involve developing a set of best practice guidelines which you adopt (both internally and with key clients) and some training. However, this investment will pay dividends as the gains can be very substantial in comparison to the time and money invested.

Dr Monica Seeley is an expert on email management at Mesmo. She is a visiting fellow at Cass Business School, City University and her third book ‘Brilliant Email' was published by Pearson in 2011. You can follow her daily tips and hints on Twitter [http://twitter.com/EmailDoctor]

Image credit: Shutterstock

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