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We’d be nowhere without the humble email, but an increasing part of many workers’ lives is taken up with relentless inbox admin. Matthew Jenkin lists seven ways to mitigate an email overload
About 269bn emails(1) are sent a day, which means almost 3.1m every second. With email traffic predicted to increase by 4 per cent year on year(2), it’s no surprise therefore that many workers struggle to manage their inbox and feel it is affecting their ability to do the job. Taking control of an overflowing inbox is ever more essential for the time-poor entrepreneur, so here are seven innovative ways business owners can avoid an email meltdown in 2019.
1. Label emails in the subject line
Richard Davies, founder of software company GPS Goal Trak(3), clearly labels emails so the reader can better prioritise messages which need immediate action. He does this by starting the subject line with either of the following three words – “<Info>” for information, “<Action>” if the recipient is expected to take an action, “<Comment>” if you want them to provide their views or feedback.
“I used to have more than 100 emails a day and the trouble is people are so thoughtless about what they write in their subject line. This is particularly important for an entrepreneur with a growing team – they need to be making good use of that,” he says.
2. Have multiple email accounts
Entrepreneur Lana Elie says having more than one email address ensures that all mail that could ever be considered urgent is in one inbox and lights up on her phone or desktop immediately. Other mail goes into an inbox she assigns time each day to.
“It’s really important to set yourself some time each day to go through emails, otherwise you will just keep putting it off, and suddenly it’s insurmountable or deadlines for replies have passed,” she warns. “I take a look at each inbox first thing in the morning, and tag them accordingly on their level of urgency, meaning that I have a rough deadline in my head for when each one needs to be replied to.”
3. Turn app alerts off
“No email needs answering within 10 seconds,” insists Sara Tye, founder and managing director of redheadPR. “It can wait and an alert on your phone home page will just distract you. Vibration is even worse. Just open your email after your meeting, scan, prioritise and file.”
Psychologists agree, claiming constant updates are a toxic source of stress. A report(4) by the London-based Future Work Centre, which conducts psychological research on people’s workplace experiences, found that continuously checking and reading emails due to a ‘push notification’ feature which alerts users to new messages even when they are not in their Mail app, prompts signs of tension and worry.
“Filtering is key”, says Simon Corbett, CEO of Jargon PR
4. Set an email curfew
Remote technology has transformed the way we work so rapidly, that it’s hard to remember a simpler time when businesses had set opening hours and we weren’t expected to ‘log on’ to work during our home life. Davies, however, suggests entrepreneurs should do just that. He says not only is the pressure on yourself and team to be ‘always on’ stressful, it can lead to other inefficiencies.
He claims that when you email out of office hours “at stupid o’clock”, instead of taking the time to carefully gather your thoughts and put them in one single, clear, concise email, you fire off multiple messages as ideas come to you.
“Especially if you are delegating, you are increasing the chances that [your team] will feel overwhelmed,” he explains. “The quality and the structure of the correspondence is important. Suddenly what could have been all said in one email is said in three.”
5. Filter your messages
Filtering is key and Gmail is brilliant for this, claims entrepreneur Simon Corbett. The CEO of Jargon PR says: “Create a ‘to read’ folder and file every non-essential email in there. If it’s urgent and important it’s a priority, if not, it goes in there. Every Friday, spend an hour going through it. You’d be amazed at what you don’t need to respond to.”
Tye says at her company they limit the amount of emails in the inbox to 50. All employees are encouraged to file, save and delete as they work. She says this reduces stress and ensures you have a clean inbox at the end of the day.
While Rob Ashton, founder of Emphasis Training and Emphasis 360, writes(5) that there are several apps which can help you better file and organise emails. He recommends Sanebox(6) which files emails based on history and behaviour. WeekWill(7) on the other hand will text you and even call you if you get an email from anyone you have flagged as important. That allows you to switch off the mail app altogether.
6. Master the ‘ART’ of emailing
Davies has found this pithy acronym helpful when managing his inbox:
Action: “If you need to take action, do it immediately, or schedule an appointment with yourself in your calendar to complete the action.”
Reply: “If the sender requires a reply, don’t leave the e-mail and come back to it later. Take a moment to compose your answer. Do it now. You have already devoted time to read the e-mail; you’ll waste time if you return to it later and re-read it before typing your reply. Once you’ve started you should finish.
Trash: “Become friends with the delete key and clear out the unnecessary clutter.”
7. Stick to the magic number 15
Sometimes less is more. Davies believes this is especially true with emails. His first rule of thumb is that if you have to scroll down to read the whole email, it’s already too long and it’s unlikely the viewer will bother to get to the end. He claims in many cases you can save a lot of time and effort by condensing what you want into 15 words in the subject line. For example, “Send me that report by 4pm tomorrow please!” You don’t need to then open up the email, read and reply. It’s totally unnecessary, he adds.
“If you are sending an email and everything you need to know is in the email header, then it saves time,” he adds. “It is a good discipline because it forces you to get to the point. There is too much waffle in most emails.”
Matthew Jenkin is a British freelance journalist and the former editor of Guardian Careers, The Guardian newspaper’s community site for job seekers and career changers