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It’s time to deal with that overflowing inbox

Your overflowing e-mail inbox is making you less productive and it may be time to do something about it.
Image: E-mail
In 2010, the number of emails sent globally topped 100 trillion, according to tech website Royal Pingdom -- that translates into 294 billion messages sent each day, up from 247 billion in 2009.AFP - Getty Images

Your overflowing e-mail inbox is making you less productive and it may be time to do something about it.

That’s why Marsha Egan, an e-mail productivity authority and author of “Inbox Detox and the Habit of E-Mail Excellence,” is calling for all workers to join her today in a “Clean Out Your Inbox Week,” an annual event she’s been promoting for four years now. The growing number of e-mails, she explained, is hampering productivity among so-called knowledge workers who rely heavily on e-mail to get their jobs done and to stay on top of their personal lives.

“The most important thing is to decide you own your e-mail and it doesn’t own you,” she said.

It’s admittedly a tough rule to live by given the e-mail explosion. Every year, we get more and more e-mails, and that has led to e-mail nightmares for many employees who just can’t seem to keep on top of the onslaught. In 2010, the number of e-mails sent globally topped 100 trillion, according to tech website Royal Pingdom. And that translates into 294 billion messages sent each day, up from 247 billion in 2009, for an average of 110 e-mails sent and received by each e-mail user every day, based on data from tech research firm The Radicati Group.

That’s a lot of e-mails and many of us just can’t seem to get through them all, leaving tons filling up our cyber inboxes and often going unanswered and unresolved.

Admit it, how many e-mails do you have in your inbox right now? It’s becoming the digital age’s most reviled question, almost as bad as questions about a person’s weight. And many of us don’t want to go on a digital diet.

A recent Yahoo! survey found that nearly one-third of people would rather clean their toilets than clean out their inboxes. It makes sense because when those e-mails pile up it can become daunting to go through them and act on them, or file away what you need, or dump what you don’t, said Heather Cabot, the Yahoo! Web Life editor.

“I struggle with this in my own life,” she admitted. “How many times do you get an e-mail, and then forget about it, and find it a month later,” she asked. “That speaks to number of e-mails we get every day.”

The e-mail traffic has gotten heavier this past year thanks to the growing use of social networks and with it an endless stream of e-mail alerts on Facebook about a baby’s first step, or a LinkedIn update that a former colleague has gotten a new job.

“E-mail engagement has gone up because of social media,” Jared Goralnick, founder of AwayFind, an e-mail applications company, who has written extensively about the email productivity.

And it’s clogging up your inbox. More than half of us have 100 or more e-mails in our inbox, and about 10 percent have upwards of 2000, according to a survey by IT advisory firm Cutter Consortium. This is not good for employees, managers and CEOs, maintained Goralnick.

“People with more than 100 messages in their inbox are less satisfied with the quality of their projects, more behind on them, and less likely to know what they need to work on at the start of a workday,” he found in his research. “Thus, it is crucial to empty our inbox.”

Right now, the average corporate employee spends 25 percent of his or her workday on e-mail-related tasks, according to Radicati, compared to 14 percent on face-to-face meetings and 9 percent on the phone.

If you could spend less time dealing with an inbox that’s out of control, think about how much more productive you’d be. At least that’s what e-mail experts like Egan surmised. “It’s not just about having a clean inbox, it’s about managing your work and setting priorities,” she explained. “The clean inbox is an indication that you are managing and triaging your work, so you’re not distracted by low priority stuff.”

She’s suggests creating e-mail folders and immediately moving e-mails that require action and those that can wait into separate folders. You have to differentiate, she said, “between working your e-mail and sorting your e-mail. When we get people to clean out inboxes, they think we’re saying you have to get all that work down. We’re just saying sort it, throw away what you don’t need, or put it into folder, and set a reminder.”

You have to change your habit and commit to keep your inbox cleaned out, she stressed. One of her clients cleaned out his inbox with thousands of e-mails and within three weeks it was full again. The key, she added, is managing the e-mail as quickly as you can, but that doesn’t mean checking e-mail every second.

One of the big productivity sinks, according to the experts, is getting constant e-mail pings, or alerts on a work computer, or on your Blackberry, for example. Egan calls those e-mail interruptions a “death by a thousand cuts” when it comes to work efficiency. “It takes the average person an average of four minutes to recover from any interruption,” she noted. “And e-mail has become the interrupter of the universe.”

So, she advised, you should limit the number of times you check e-mail throughout the day and when you do, make sure you sort the e-mails so you stay on top of the cyber pile of mail. Being proactive, added Goralnick, is also important if your employer limits the e-mail capacity you have on work systems. An excessive amount of e-mails, especially those with attachments, could potentially eat up capacity and suddenly you’re under the gun to delete messages because your company’s IT administrator is breathing down your neck.

Yahoo!’s Cabot suggested workers use whatever management tools that come with existing e-mail systems on work computers and on your personal devices. She believes the growing use of mobile devices has also contributed to the e-mail deluge because we can now send and receive e-mail where ever we are 24/7. “We are more wired than ever before,” she said, "and as a result need to be more mindful of managing email or it will end up managing us.”

“It’s about getting yourself into a routine,” she advised. “Say to yourself: ‘Once a week I will go and delete anything I don’t need anymore; and I will go back to phone, or maybe walk down the hall and actually talk to somebody.'”