Subtract it by like, 20: 5 Approaches to Dealing with Email Overload


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[Image credit: The Oatmeal]

I care about email overload, tired as the phrase may be. Of course I care--thanks to Gander, it's my job to care. Also, it's an interesting problem to fix, because it's so common, and because it has so many bandaids. For fun (and education), I've outlined a few approaches, and their respective champions, ordered from most to least radical.*

1) Quit

  • Champions: A handful of companies (the largest seems to be the French IT firm Atos), and tech demagogues, plus a smart knowledge manager named Luis Suarez (bt), who is coming into the home stretch of his fourth(!) year without email.
  • Profession: Knowledge Manager at IBM
  • In practice:  First things first: Suarez does still check incoming emails coming to his corporate address, but, unless they're of a sensitive nature, he doesn't reply. Instead, he communicates with people inside and outside his network through social media and collaborative tools. His theory is that email causes bottlenecks that these "more open, transparent, and engaged tools" eliminate, and from this blogger's experience, he is right.

2) Take a sabbatical

  • Champion: Danah Boyd (bt)
  • Profession: Senior Researcher at Microsoft, Research Assistant Professor at NYU, Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School, Berkman Center Fellow, Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales.
  • In practice: Boyd's goal is to a) get away from email without b) pissing anyone off. How to make this happen? First, be proactive about telling everyone you know and everyone who might know you that you will not be on email. Boyd starts manually informing close collaborators six months out, makes "some loud public pronouncements" about her absence six weeks out, and sets up an auto responder two weeks out. Twenty four hours out, she turns on a snarky bounce message telling senders they should call her mom if they have something really important to say. ("Few folks ever call my mom, although some have.")
  • Before she leaves, she turns on the procmail script that filters all messages to /dev/null. Non-unix geeks can use filters instead. She sets up a vacation email account and gives the address to a select few people. She leaves. She checks the vacation account every 2-5 days.
  • When she returns, she writes to her core colleagues to see what they need from her. After she's caught up, she announces her return.

3) Ban after-hours email

  • Champions: Volkswagon, the Advisory Board
  • Methodology: Employees at Volkswagon's German offices can receive email on their Blackberries from a half hour before work starts to a half hour after it ends. The mail server is in blackout mode for the rest of the day. Sounds swell, though it doesn't apply to executives (yet) or sys-admins.
  • The Washington D.C.-based health and education research firm the Advisory Board doesn't modify servers--it just instructs employees to stay off email after-hours. The Advisory Board's CEO does send email after-hours, but he schedules it to be sent in the morning. Other employees, including those at the management, seem to be heeding the instructions, which makes it easier for other staffers to follow suit.

4) Follow GTD 

  • Champion: David Allen  (bt)
  • Profession: Productivity consultant and author of Getting Things Done
  • Methodology: Immediately do something with every incoming email, such that your inbox is empty. To decide what to do, first ask yourself: do I want/ have to do anything about this? If no, you can delete the email, put it in your future/maybe folder, schedule it in your calendar, or put it in a reference file. If yes, do the thing right away if you can do it within 5 minutes. If you can't, delegate it or defer it.  GTD has plenty of fans, especially among Outlook users, but if you're a piler, the constant filing may not work for you.

5) Be a fortress with a few arrow slits.

  • Champion: Mary Motz (bt)
  • Profession: Founder of ProVirtual Solutions, an Online Business Consulting and Wordpress firm.
  • Methodology: This involves two steps: the first is to limit the time you have your inbox open, and the second is, during those times you're not in your inbox, set up a disruptive routing service for important emails. Motz uses AwayFind for this second step, telling clients that if they'd like a quick response from her, they can put "Urgent" in the subject line. AwayFind routes all such messages to Motz's phone, in the form of text messages, tweets, IMs, or voicemails, depending on preference.

*the approaches, not their champions

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