The Life: The workplace doctor, Debbie Nicol, helps out a reader who is drowning under a deluge of 1,000 e-mails a day.
Three simple tips to cut down on email overload
Dear Workplace Doctor, I recently started a new job and find the workload very demanding. One thing I wasn't expecting was the dramatic increase in the number of emails I receive. In my last company, I received 50 a day, whereas now I receive up to 1,000. I find the constant email traffic distracting, if not a little nerve-racking. How can I keep on top of all the messages that are coming in as well as my new job? SA, Dubai
Dear SA, surely a newspaper column would be an interruption to your 1,000 emails, or perhaps it's just what the doctor prescribed. I'm not sure even if you will have enough time to see this response. Is that really possible - 1,000 emails every day? If so, let's dissect them to get a handle on the real situation:
• How many are for your proactive action?
• How many are for your reaction action?
• How many are simply for 'cc' to cover one's tracks?
• How many are just trash?
Is the situation still as daunting? If so, isn't there enough of a business case for you to have an email processor assistant? I can't imagine even the greatest of machine-like human behaviour being able to, or even wanting to cope with that number of messages on a daily basis.
I feel there's now some real perspective for us on the situation. However, there's still 1,000 emails coming in and while you may not have to deal with them all, if it were me, I would want to ensure the essential ones don't fall through the cracks and those unimportant are not stored. The following tips have worked for me:
1. Set up your systemised filtration.
I set up my system so that emails from my trusted senders come to me marked with a special colour and go to the top of the list. To me, they represent the must reads of my day.
2. Structure your storage to serve your needs.
I decide what I wish to store. For some, I wish to keep attachments and others not - and some only the attachment without the email.
3. Apply automatic sorting.
I worked with my IT support to stop emails that are either spam, or need to be marked as spam (I think this is called whitelisting and blacklisting - yet I'm not the expert, that's for sure). While the effectiveness of this takes some time to kick in as the system recognises those it should stop, and while your list will always grow on a daily basis, the long-term effect of that process means less time manually deleting unnecessary emails.
But is there more you can do beyond this immediate firefighting activity? Why not start an education process with your colleagues and vendors, highlighting to them priorities of simplicity and efficiency. Imagine if they could also see that personal communication, without email backup, may even still work in this day and age?
Lastly, I would look at the structure of the department. Are there people in roles below you that should be receiving the emails on your behalf and acting upon them too?
SA, consider what your day could look like and what would need to be done to get it there. After all, once you get this down to a realistic number, there's bound to be some satisfaction about meeting that challenge. If you can manage that, what else could you achieve?
Take a deep breath and create a system that works for you.
Debbie Nicol, the managing director of the Dubai-based business en motion, is a consultant on leadership and organisational development, strategic change and corporate culture. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for the Workplace Doctor's advice on your challenges, whether as an employee, a manager or a colleague