It’s a fact. Email is making us slower, less productive and even dumber.
The average employee now checks email 36 times an hour, spending a full 13 hours a week reading, deleting, sending and sorting emails. Each time we’re distracted with an email, it takes an average of 16 minutes (yes, 16 minutes) to refocus on the task at hand. But the news gets worse: Workers who check email frequently suffer a 10-point drop in IQ, the equivalent of missing an entire night’s sleep.
Our email inboxes, once-upon-a-time the private repository of important messages, have become an open door for anything and everything. Much of this is little more than glorified spam; precious little is actually time-sensitive, actionable or even worth opening. Adherents to the “inbox-zero” philosophy insist that it’s best to systematically filter through the madness, attend to each message in some form or another and clean out your inbox every day. Really? I think there’s a better way.
As the CEO of a global social media company with more than 600 employees, I get hundreds of emails a day (sometimes thousands). Some matter; most don’t. The key to getting off the email hamster wheel is quickly assessing which messages deserve attention and then responding as efficiently as possible. And lots of times this means abandoning email altogether in favour of low-tech tools like telephones and high-tech channels like social media.
Here are six techniques I use to manage my constantly overflowing email inbox:
1. Slim down the number of messages you look at with a tool like SaneBox.SaneBoxuses a unique algorithm to sort through all of your incoming emails. Messages that are considered non-priority are automatically put into a designated @SaneLater folder (that you can check at your convenience). Sanebox works with major email providers, like Gmail, Outlook and Yahoo, and is cheap and easy to use. It has saved me a lot of time and ensures that my top priority emails aren’t drowned out by less important ones.
2. Write emails using the three sentences philosophy. For years now, I’ve added a custom signature to all my emails: “Sorry about the short response. I wish I could be more thorough, but with the volume of emails I receive that isn’t possible.” I include a link to a site that explains the philosophy in more detail: http://three.sentenc.es/. This approach - effectively treating all of my emails like short SMS text messages - has worked extremely well for me. I’ve trained myself to leave out the fluff and keep only the most essential points in an email. If I absolutely have to say more, I just pick up a phone or talk in person.
3. Use the Rapportive app to quickly get context about the people you email. If you like free timesavers, you’ll love Rapportive. It’s an extension for Gmail that automatically shows you the LinkedIn photo, profile and shared connections of pretty much anyone you email. Just start composing a message, type in an email address and the relevant information pops up in the right sidebar. When you need to quickly respond to a lot of emails - many from people you haven’t met or barely know - it can be very helpful to have all of this background instantly available.
4. Used Canned Responses for messages you send frequently. Do you find yourself typing out essentially the same email replies over and over? Canned Responses, one of the experimental “Lab” feature in Gmail, is a perfect solution. It lets you compile a library of messages you send frequently, which can be accessed when composing an email with just two clicks. Gmail automatically plugs the message into the top of your reply. All you need to do is hit send.
5. Opt out of annoying group email threads with the Mute feature. It’s amazing how few people know about the Mute button for Gmail. It makes those long, annoying email threads involving too many co-workers disappear like magic. Next time a group email starts bombarding your inbox, just select the conversation and click Mute in the 'More actions' drop-down menu. Any new responses added to that conversation will automatically bypass your inbox and be archived for later reading (or ignoring).
6. Use social media for group conversations. On the subject of annoying threads, the reality is that email was never intended for collaborative work. Try setting up a meeting time with a group on email and that becomes obvious. Messages flood in, leaving users scrolling madly to keep in sync with the conversation. A better option: Internal social networking tools like Yammer that feature Facebook-style discussion threads. This way, multiple employees can post, reply, and view centrally, in real time. It’s an incredible time-saver, with the added benefit that these central threads can be made publicly searchable for future use.
A growing chorus is calling for the death of email, but for now at least it’s a workplace institution we’re stuck with. The key is to make it work for you, instead of the other way around. The tactics above should help limit time spent reading and responding to messages. And if all else fails, there are of course more radical measures. Unplugging from email - even for just half-hour stretches - can do wonders for productivity ... and your sanity.