If it feels like your inbox dictates your life, that’s probably because it does – almost 30 per cent of the average person’s work week is spent on email, says one expert. Instead of succumbing to email overload, here’s how to tame your inbox once and for all.
Yes, email overload is a real thing, and whether or not you’ve come across the term, you’ve definitely experienced it. It’s that frantic feeling when you return from a holiday to an overflowing inbox. Or the moment you open your work email after hours in a desperate attempt to get a head start on tomorrow’s correspondence.
Only 5 to 10 per cent of our emails are actually important, so why are we answering work emails between sips of sav blanc during dinner with friends? Being a slave to email is not only unhealthy, but also really, really unproductive, says Jocelyn K Glei, contributing writer for Harvard Business Review, blogger and author of the newly released book Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions and Get Real Work Done.
Glei is adamant that we’ve become addicted to email in a way that’s not only killing productivity and increasing stress – it’s taxing the amount of meaningful work we actually get to do.
“When we think about digital distraction at work, email overload is still public enemy number one,” she says. According to her research, the average person checks their email 11 times an hour, processes 122 messages a day and spends 28 per cent of their total work week on email.
One concerning study Glei cites suggests that when doing work that requires deep concentration such as coding or assembling a presentation, it can take at least 25 minutes to get back into the task after you’ve been interrupted.
What can HR do to help break the habit?
HR can play a significant role in changing ingrained habits across an organisation, as well as on a micro level. Glei suggests allowing for an open dialogue about expectations surrounding email, both during work hours and outside the office.
“It’s incredibly important to ensure that everyone at the company – or at least within your specific team – is on the same page about email expectations,” she explains. “One of the key reasons that people find email so emotionally exhausting is that they feel like they have to be checking it all the time or they might endanger their job in some way.”
This belief contradicts reality, though. She finds that once people start a conversation about creating email policies, there is more room to move than expected. This is especially true if individuals are empowered to put processes in place that help them deal with email overload more effectively. Still, as Glei asserts, it’s really up to organisations to proactively respond to the pressures of working in the modern workplace, where “it’s incredibly easy to be busy, but it’s incredibly difficult to be deliberate and focused.”
“I think organisations need to spend less time reactively doing and more time on proactively deciding what they should be doing. And they should empower their employees to do the same,” she says.
Glei was kind enough to share her top tips for what you can do right now to handle email overload and whip your inbox into shape. Consider these the first steps to healthier, more productive working habits for you and employees.
3 things you can do right now to conquer email overload
1. Timebox your email routine
There are two types of emailers, says Glei: ‘reactors’, who rely on notifications and near-constant monitoring of their inboxes to nibble away at their email throughout the day; and ‘batchers’, who set aside specific chunks of time to power through their email so they can ignore it the rest of the time. Not surprisingly, batchers are significantly more effective when it comes to getting things done, she says, and according to recent research they’re also less stressed. To get yourself into the groove of batching, she recommends setting aside two or three blocks of 30–60 minutes per day for checking email – and that’s it.
2. Reduce FOMO by using VIP notifications
If you’d like to stick to specific blocks of time for checking email, but you have a special someone who will freak out if you don’t tend to their email within five minutes of receiving it, Glei says you can compromise by using VIP notifications. On an iPhone, you can designate certain people as VIPs to be alerted via push notification whenever they email you. The Gmail app and Android phones have similar options for designating priority senders. Then you’re freed up to ignore your email without worrying you’ll miss something crucial.
3. Quarantine your email on a separate screen
The clearer your workspace (read: computer screen), the easier it is to focus on the task at hand – and return to it if you are interrupted, says Glei. For email, Glei recommends keeping your inbox open on a separate-yet-reachable screen (for example, a smart device or secondary monitor) rather than on your primary computer screen.