Email overload is a growing problem for the world's knowledge workers especially as more and more companies are shifting to remote work. Millions of requests go unanswered as we struggle to deal with the daily mountain of new messages. Luckily here are ways you can deal with your emails more effectively.
In this guide, we focus on how to manage email overload. We study the evidence to provide ten email management best practices to adopt at work, including tried and tested email strategies to help you stop sending too many emails and cope with barrage of messages you receive.
What is email overload?
Email overload is the feeling of stress and anxiety caused by an inbox of unanswered emails.
The phenomenon of email overload isn't new. In fact, already in 2011, researchers warned about the dangers of excessive email. Academics found that much communication that clutters up our inboxes wasn't "business-critical". To put it in simpler terms, it was junk.
Struggling with your inbox can create intense negative feelings, researchers have found. In one study, email overload was found to generate "higher levels of burnout and low work engagement". Workers found that email overload affected them outside of work, creating pressure even when we were not being paid.
As emails stack up in our inboxes, it can be impossible to identify those that you must answer immediately and those that can wait. We lose perspective on what's essential and what can be ignored.
The situation is getting worse with the increase in home and hybrid working, says researcher Amy Zadow writing in The Conversation. In her research into academic communication, 55% of academics sent correspondence over a weekend. More concerning, 30% sent emails over the weekend and expected a response the same day.
She warns that this culture of 24/7 communication – caused in many cases by email overload – is damaging to our physical and mental health.
How to spot the signs of email overload
The most unmistakable sign you're struggling with email overload is having hundreds of unanswered emails in your inbox. As we've seen, this can have psychological and even physical impacts on us.
Email is making us miserable, says Cal Newport in the New York Times. According to Newport, unanswered emails cause a level of "background anxiety" that can follow you at all times everywhere.
In extreme cases, email overload can generate tell-tale signs of workplace stress, including feeling like you're unable to cope. Other symptoms of workplace stress can include:
- mood swings
- being withdrawn
- loss of motivation, commitment, and confidence
- increased emotional reactions – being more tearful, sensitive, or aggressive
Are you feeling stressed, or does every email make you feel more miserable? Here are some ways you can manage email overload.
10 ways to deal with email overload
Here are ten evidence-based strategies for dealing with email overload. If email over is hampering your performance, check out our article on the top 10 email productivity tips.
If you're experiencing severe stress or anxiety in your job, it's crucial that you speak to someone and ask for help. The tips and advice here are strategies to help, but not a long-term solution. If you need help, ask for it.
1. Understand how you use email
Before we dive into the tips, think about how you use email. How you deal with your inbox reflects your personality, say Shana Lebowitz and Allana Akhtar in Business Insider.
They split the workers of the world into three types:
- Email filers/deleters (those who respond immediately)
- Email savers (respond quickly, but never deletes emails)
- Ignorer (those who never read or respond to emails)
Are you someone who has to answer every email and is struggling to cope? Or do you ignore emails and store them up?
By recognizing how you use email, you can identify strategies with the highest chances of success.
The way we use email may also explain why your current strategies for dealing with email are unlikely to work. In fact, many of our ingrained habits for managing email – such as switching off alerts – can negatively impact us, warns Dr. Emma Russell.
Acknowledging there is a problem in managing email is the first step in making a positive change.
2. Set aside the time to answer emails
Answering email is a core part of your role and should be treated as such. Set aside some time regularly to answer emails.
This could be a morning, afternoon or any time that's suitable for you. Add this to your calendar and treat it as an important task. Don't leave answering emails in the evenings and weekends. Not only is working during your free time unacceptable, but it's also likely to be inefficient too. It could cause more stress than it solves.
Having time set aside for emails enables you to prepare mentally. Managers and leaders that we're able to prepare for their work in advance "experienced higher positive moods and work focus and that in turn allowed them to be more successful throughout the day," found researchers at Portland State University.
When you're answering emails, do that and nothing else. Juggling multiple tasks just isn't practical, scientists have found. Set aside some time to answer emails and focus solely on the task for the best results.
3. Triage email
Email overload is a symptom of failing to file and prioritize your emails effectively. Triaging your email is a strategy you can use to cope with mountains of correspondence.
While you may receive hundreds (or even thousands) of emails a day, Amy Gallow in the Harvard Business Review recommends there are just three ways to deal with each email:
- Delete: You can quickly see those emails you don't need to read or respond to. This could include invites, junk mail, and adverts. Delete them as soon as you can to save space and reduce stress.
- Respond: Urgent emails will jump out, and you should respond immediately. This includes business-critical correspondence, such as messages from your boss.
- File: If you can't respond immediately, file away messages safely where they can be dealt with when time allows (during your protected time, for example).
Popular email packages such as Outlook and Gmail enable you to quickly identify important emails (red-flagging or starring, for example). This can provide an easy way to identify urgent and important emails.
We recommend taking a little time to understand how your email program works and see if there are ways you could use it more effectively.
4. Build some standard templates
The truth is, most of us deal with the same or similar tasks and requests every day. The emails we receive and the responses we create are largely the same – naturally following the rules of good email etiquette. Creating a series of standard request and response templates that are professionally written and pre-formatted can save significant amounts of time.
Filed away somewhere accessible, we can call up these templates when needed, cutting and pasting them when necessary.
Indeed, you'll still need to edit, amend and personalize them, which is not ideal.
Need some help? We've created a series of in-depth articles with templates focusing on all aspects of professional business communication, including:
Better yet, read the next tip to see how we at Flowrite have taken the concept of email templates not only one but rather a hundred steps ahead with the help of artificial intelligence.
5. Use AI and technology to transform email
Templates can save you some time, but they can come across as impolite and impersonal. Copy and pasting and manually filling in the blanks in the templates is still time-consuming. Luckily, an exciting new technology that harnesses the power of AI is transforming the way we write emails. In seconds you can create targeted, professional and effective emails that get results.
Flowrite AI-powered writing productivity tool can help anyone save time from crafting personalized email messages with incredible accuracy. If you're stuck in a rut or struggling for time, our product can help refresh and refine your emails, translating your ideas and thoughts into professional correspondence that achieves the right results.
And it's not just AI writing; there are a whole host of new tech solutions and tools that can increase workplace productivity and help you battle the email burden.
6. Delete, block, unsubscribe
Junk mail, unsolicited mail, spam. Whatever you want to call it, we all receive mountains of emails that we don't want or need. Every day, an incredible (or frightening) 320 billion spam emails are sent. That's over 80% of all emails sent every day.
If you've got an email account, you'll have received at least one unsolicited message. But you could receive up to thousands each month, particularly if your email address is publicly available on the internet.
The first stage of reclaiming your inbox is to go through and discard and delete any junk email systematically. But, you must also unsubscribe to avoid receiving future emails.
At the bottom of every email, you should find a link that enables you to unsubscribe from a mailing list. It's a legal requirement in the US and Europe, although some unscrupulous emailers can find ways to hide it. If the mail continues to come, then block the sender.
In the future, never sign-up for something you don't want or need. For example, if you receive unsolicited emails from a mailing list, always click unsubscribe immediately.
7. Consider calling
Message ping-pong can rapidly increase the number of emails in your inbox, but is it the best way to communicate?
According to psychologists, sometimes a call can be more effective (or "optimal") at creating a connection and communicating. We tend to write emails when we can communicate more effectively in person, either on the phone or face-to-face, by attempting to avoid awkwardness.
They concluded that "interactions including voice (phone, video chat, and voice chat) created stronger social bonds and no increase in awkwardness, compared with interactions including text (email, text chat)."
While it's not always possible to meet face-to-face, consider whether it could be quicker to give someone a call before sending an email. A short phone conversation could take up less time than managing the barrage of emails that can often come when dealing with details.
8. Invest in internal communication tools
Instant messaging services such as Slack facilitate a more rapid exchange between colleagues, clients, and customers. Suppose you can get over the implementation hurdles; in that case, instant messaging can be an excellent strategy for eliminating email overload at work.
In a practical guide for implementing instant messaging, the Harvard Business Review advises using your staff's technologies and setting ground rules. They note that IM is already a core part of tech teams. Slack, for example, supports the rapid exchange of information that teams need to collaborate and grow to become a critical tool for businesses of all sizes.
Of course, simply replacing email with IM could lead to an entirely new problem of messaging overload. However, the strategies outlined above are all still relevant. The need to respect the work/life balance is equally as important, says the HBR.
9. Store documents in the cloud
How many emails are requests for documents, and how many are missing attachments?
Document sharing and storage are changing, with many more businesses shifting to the cloud. By embracing cloud solutions and providing adequate access, you could remove significant amounts of email traffic.
All documents can be stored and made accessible to anyone, anywhere, and at any time. In a post-covid world of work, cloud services could provide the productivity boost we need, argues William Smith in Technology Magazine.
You no longer have to send an email and wait for a response (or issue a response if you're on the other side. You can assume everyone can access the documents they need when they need them.
10. Take a break
It may seem counterproductive, but taking a break from email (an email vacation) can decrease stress and increase concentration, researchers have found.
In tests, scientists found that those who read email immediately were in a steady "high alert" state, with more constant heart rates. In contrast, workers removed from answering emails for five days "experienced more natural, variable heart rates".
Now, it's not practical to turn off emails during the working week. But restricting answering emails to the working day and switching off during evening and weekends can reduce stress and the feelings of email overload.
Think this will affect your prospects at work? Setting boundaries is a critical skill for leaders, says Jenn Lofgren in Forbes. Establishing clearly what is and isn't OK – including answering emails over the weekend – sends a strong message.
The tips here should provide some ways on how to manage email overload. Unfortunately, the problem of too many emails isn't going to disappear. The truth is, email overload is likely to become more of a risk as we work more remotely and spend even more time online also during our free time.
If you're struggling with too much email, it's essential that you develop email management strategies that work for you. Consider using new technologies such as AI email assistants, instant messaging, and implementing email management best practices at work.
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