It’s Monday morning and I just opened my work email. Despite being armed with a ginormous cup of coffee, beginning to scroll through these messages is undoubtedly going to spark a cascade of negative emotions: frustration, anger, exasperation, exhaustion. And then there will be that daily internal monologue about being behind on my correspondence and how overwhelmed I feel.
I’m sure I’m not the only one to have this reaction to email so what follows are some guidelines about how to engage–and occasionally not engage–with email. Let’s start with the assumption that you’re smarter than your email inbox and that you can find a way to make sense of those hundreds of stockpiled messages.
How to manage an overflowing inbox. The upshot: you need a system of folders or task management. Other folks, far more clever than me, have come up with great ideas. There are some examples here. And there are many more if you just Google, “manage your email.” Because I don’t know about you, but just hoping for the best and saying that at some mythical time in the future I will be “caught up on email” isn’t working for me.
From there you need some rules and structure: all emails answered within 24 hours, setting aside blocks of time when you only work on email, etc. I know that for me, simply scrolling through the new ones each morning, responding to the really urgent ones, and then forgetting about all the others is not a good system. So I flag (literally, my email program lets me do this and then I can sort by flagged messages later) the ones I need to come back to that require some time and attention. Beyond that I’m experimenting with setting aside two or three 15-minute blocks of time each day when I work through the flagged materials. Setting a timer and saying that I will only work on email focuses me and reduces the temptation to just scroll through all the emails and be overwhelmed. But choose a discipline that will work for you. Don’t set yourself up for failure.
Once you do start responding, a different set of guidelines kicks in. Let’s start with the email that makes you so mad you can barely see straight. Go ahead, write the angry response. Say everything you need to say. Don’t hold back. But then put it in your draft folder and DO NOT SEND IT. Let it sit there for at least 24 hours. Then go back to it and revise accordingly. Having had the chance to vent will help, but 24 hours later your emotions (hopefully) won’t be running as hot, you can exercise some discretion, and send a measured response.
Let’s continue with that really important email you’re composing where you need to communicate some really critical information. Don’t bury the lede. Put the important stuff first. Think about a list of bullet points, rather than embedding all the material in a series of prose paragraphs. Highlight the meeting time, date, and place or the deadline you want everyone to adhere to–or put it in bold or italics. Make it jump out. If you really want people to pay attention and read the whole thing, keep the overall message as short as possible. Remember how you don’t have time for your email? Everyone you send an email to is in the same boat. So make sure your emails get to the point quickly and don’t require a lot of reading.
And let’s not forget the basics. Use “reply all” carefully. Does the whole list of recipients need to see your RSVP for the meeting? Probably not. Does the whole list of recipients need to see your trenchant comments about a thorny issue that you were, in fact, invited to share with everyone? Yes. Don’t be that person who disrupts the group conversation by mistakenly replying only to the sender.
And finally, sometimes it’s okay to avoid email. I have a rule that I am getting better at following and have talked about here before: I don’t do work email after 6pm. No good can come it, unless you count not sleeping well as a good thing.
This is just a start. What other rules or practices do you have for making email manageable and handling your responses?