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At the mercy of your inbox? How to cope with email overload

Emails can be major source of stress and disruption in our lives. But there are ways to take back control

Email is over 30 years old and hasn’t changed that much since its inception. But over the years we have been letting it take over our lives. It started out as a basic electronic messaging system, and we now use it to communicate everything – from the simplest to the most complex messages. Many of us email people we sit next to in the office instead of talking face to face, and let new emails interrupt whatever we are doing.

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About 269bn emails are sent a day, according to data from the Radicati Group, which means almost 2.4m emails are sent every second. So it’s hardly surprising that email overload is now a major cause of stress and disruption. People either feel they can never completely disconnect, or find they are drowning in torrents of new emails if they do manage to take time to switch off.

There are a few approaches people use to help deal with email overload:

  • The ostrich – this head-in-the-sand approach is based on the belief that email will eventually be killed off and overtaken by social media. However, statistics do not support this view. Email traffic is predicted to increase by 4% year on year

  • Inbox zero – the method by which you keep your inbox empty or almost empty at all times. However, even the inventor of this approach, Merlin Mann, now acknowledges, that seeking the holy grail of an empty inbox becomes a job in itself.

  • Goldfish – when you are constantly checking emails and therefore never switching off.

  • Sledgehammer – imposing a total ban on evening or late-night email.

Most of these approaches, and especially constantly checking email, can be bad for your health and well-being. Distraction from emails has helped reduce our concentration to eight seconds – less than that of a goldfish – according to a Microsoft study in 2015.

The challenge is how to control email overload and instant reply syndrome. One option is technology designed to help productivity such as Boomerang, an app that lets you set a time for emails to automatically send later. But that’s like applying a plaster to the wound. The best option is to overhaul our email behaviour.

Because email has been around for so long we assume everyone knows how to use it effectively. But do they? Check your inbox to see how many emails are: two weeks old; ambiguous, maybe even rude; unnecessary; or chains that could be stopped using an alternative channel. Here are some ways to start changing your email behaviour:

  • Stop email instant gratification – Turn off all new emails alerts and set aside quality time to deal with the inbox. Focus on the task in hand, rather than allowing constant interruptions.

  • Take control – Move emails out to a folder as you deal with them (from reading to responding). Use your software to filter out all non-essential emails automatically.

  • Think before hitting send – Is email the best way to communicate? if not, then be bold, use an alternative like actually having a chat in person.

  • Make it easy for people to reply properly – Keep it short – try limiting yourself to five lines, with bullet points and/or questions you need addressed. Within that, make sure your message is structured, succinct, spell-checked and focused on a single topic.

  • Set boundaries for work emails – When you want to get away from work, make sure your emails don’t follow you and you don’t get sucked back into work queries. If decisive action isn’t taken, we face becoming eternal slaves to our email inbox.

Dr Monica Seeley is the author of Brilliant Email and Taking Control of Your Inbox

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