Coping with Email Overload – A Continuous Improvement & Development Cycle

Welcome to the final article in the Coping with Email Overload series. In the previous two posts we’ve looked at:

If you haven’t had a chance to read those two posts before,take a moment now to catch up. So what strategies can each ‘in-boxer” type use to deal with overload now and into the future?

The 5 step continuous email overload improvement process 

In my career, which has revolved around email (or the equivalent of it) for almost two decades now, I’ve made the following observations:

  1. The number of emails coming in continuously increases. Despite many other forms of communication being available to us now and contrary to what you may believe:
    – email is on the rise,
    – has some yet unmatched use cases and so
    – simply won’t go away.
  2. Spam is actually becoming less. Whilst the overall amount of junk email is still increasing, spam filters have become good enough to effectively reduce, sometimes even kill incoming junk messages completely.
  3. But here is the killer – with every newsletter you sign up and every new web service you register for, you will increase your email overload exponentially, not just because of marketing copy, but because of the many notification mails you’re receiving over the duration of (actively as well as inactively) using a web service or being subscribed to a newsletter.

So where do these observations lead, how are you to solve email overload for yourself?

First, don’t think just because you’ve got it under control now, you’ll have it under control tomorrow. Email – the protocol – might be the same for years, but its use as a communication medium and the peoples behavior around it, keeps changing. Therefore, it’s important to continuously re-visit your “anti email overload strategy”. Personally, I do this once or twice a year.

Secondly, there needs to be a strategy that you can use to measure yourself against and improve on when you reach your limit (see post 2). Going through this step by step process works independent of which In-Boxer type you are, in fact it just means you’ll be weighing in differently on the techniques given, depending on what suits your personality more.

At this point, I’ve refined my strategy to the following 5 key points, that I go through one by one, once I notice I’m reaching my limit too often, or, in the regular reviews of my inbox management analysis.

What are those 5 strategies?

1. Use automization techniques

Do what you can to (safely) automize incoming emails. For instance, in my inbox I realized that:

  • CC’s are FYI’s.
  • BCC’s are for internal or external “politics”, or put more nicely: for professional courtesy.
  • Notifications are mostly unnecessary.

By putting up some smart rules and automatically pre-sorting those into folders that I can read later (if need be), I save both a lot of time and focus.

Compared to the past where you’d only have your email clients native rules engine available, todays often cloud based email applications have become platforms that allow you to connect different tools and services with each other, making automization techniques even more powerful, thus helping you to get unstructured inbox data into structured information within the software where they matter.

2. Be disciplined in dealing with Junk and Bad Senders

Nobody wants to read unnecessary stuff that’s stealing time and wasting productivity. Therefore it’s equally important to manually do some tasks that only you can do yourself, such as:

  • Unsubscribe (all) that you don’t want or need right now (you can always resubscribe later)
  • Blacklist senders (ideally cross-communication channels, which tools like Unified Inbox support)
  • Train your junk filter diligently, including checking regularly for items to whitelist.

All three are worth the manual labour required to get them right and your effort will reap many returns compared to the time spent.

3. Everybody needs some help sometime 

Sometimes the above just isn’t enough. Learn when it’s time to delegate and have others take over or when to seek some external help:

  • Get one or more assistants
  • Learn from the best, follow selected blogs and thought leaders (but not too many!)
  • Exchange knowledge & experiences with other In-Boxers, be open about your struggles and what works for you

You might even want to try hiring a consultant for a certain period of time to help you manage your email overload and develop a strategy that works for you. An objective, outsiders view of your inbox working style sometimes can do real wonders.

4. Understand the value of good inbox management and know what causes the biggest damage

Teach yourself about:

  • Searching and finding stuff
  • Managing interruptions and what they mean for your productivity (“Attention Economy”)
  • Good and bad communication habits

Practising and sharing leads to the best learning as well as teaching experiences here. Both together form the future of a better communication culture, not just for you personally but for anybody who comes in touch with you in our international digital society. So this is a very important point if we’re going to change things for the better not just for ourselves, but also for others suffering with email overload. A good start would be to learn about the best and worst times to send an email.

5. Relax.

Trying hard is important, but doing nothing sometimes is part of the solution. If nothing else helps, try this step.

  • Pick some work from your inbox, go offline and focus solely on that work. Don’t bother going online until the task is complete. Try to take a deep breath and relax when you’re tempted to go online and check what has happened in the meantime.
  • In fact, if you can, get away from your desk and/or your devices to complete some work.
  • Don’t work. Reflect instead. Create spaces of seeming nothingness. These are actually rooms for creating super productiveness at a later point in time.

If I do those 5 key strategies well, I positively know I will manage my email overload. Despite years of change and a spike of new communication channels and ever increasing messaging streams, I’ve been able to create an Inbox Zero at the beginning of every year repeating these steps regularly.

You may also be interested to read “The Future of Inbox Management” article as the concept of the “5 D’s” significantly helped me to understand the overall struggle for managing messages and communication in general.

Just for the record: if I had to pick one favorite from the ones above, it would be #3 – everybody needs help sometime.

One thought on “Coping with Email Overload – A Continuous Improvement & Development Cycle

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