Gaining control of email overloademail management tips

The onslaught of email is a problem that many people in today’s workplace struggle with …. And yet it is surprising that  there are many companies that actually neglect to train their people in how to manage and organise the flood of emails they receive. Studies have been conducted which have confirmed that there are many common misunderstandings around how to manage and respond to email overload – and that increasing numbers of staff report feeling overwhelmed at times.

You may have seen the half day hands-on Email Management Training workshop that Performance Development offer, which shows people how to use the various capabilities within Outlook to get control of email and thereby better support personal productivity. The facilitator of this highly popular training program is Steuart Snooks, and I recently posed some questions to him …… Steuart is widely respected as an expert in this topic – so it was great to capture in this discussion some of the many tips that he offers to participants during the in-company training that he facilitates –

  1. Email has become the bane of many people in today’s workplace. What are the most common mistakes you’ve found people in the workplace make with how they handle emails?

After 10 years of working with people from all sorts of roles and all sorts of different organisations, I would say that there are 3 major areas around email that people don’t control.

The first of these is not controlling when they address their email. Most people allow email to arrive as an interruption or attend to it on an ad hoc basis. We need to control WHEN we’re looking at email and when we’re not, rather than allowing it as a constant stream. It’s critical to stay focused on the task we are doing without distraction and then take dedicated time to attend to the email. We should single-task each of these activities rather than trying to multi-task them both at the same time.

Over the years, I have found that it is critical to schedule specific times each day to address email, just as we do for meetings and phone appointments/teleconferences.

  1. So you’re saying pick a time of the day to actually focus on looking purely at your email?

Yes, that’s right. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we should block out specific times in our calendar for addressing email. How often we do this and at what times of the day varies for different people in different roles. The more responsive your role, the more often you check the inbox and the shorter the gap between those times.

Most people don’t understand why they should book email times into their calendar, so I ask them if they book meetings into their calendar. Of course they do. And what is a meeting? It’s a conversation between one or more other people. And would you also put a phone appointment or a tele-conference into your calendar? Yes, of course. And aren’t both of these also a conversation between one or more other people?

And what is email? Of course, it too is a conversation between one or more other people. But we tend to not book time for these in our calendar and so we have very little control over them!

  1. And what’s the second major issue around email?

Now that you are looking at your email at a scheduled time, WHAT do you do with each them? The aim here is to only look at them once (because your time is too valuable to ever look at any email more than once) and the key to this is use the 4D method to make a decision and move them along. The whole aim of looking at email is not to do any work but to simply make a decision about the next action for each message.

  1. What are these 4D’s? …. I imagine one has got to be Delete hasn’t it?

Yes, you’re right Brian, that’s everybody’s favourite – DELETE! The others are DELEGATE (when the next action is best handled by someone else), DEAL with it straight way (when the next action can be done in about 2 minutes or less) and the final is to DECIDE and there are 3 possible decisions. The first is WHERE the email needs to be filed, either in one of your current email folders or maybe it can be added to an existing calendar item.

If the email is actually a task, ask yourself WHEN am I going to do this and convert the email into a new calendar item. And finally, sometimes you have to WAIT on something or someone else so you can put the email into a folder called Waitlist or Watchlist or Pending Reply and add a reminder to it so you don’t forget about it. Once you make one of these 4D decisions for each email, your inbox is empty again!

  1. Sounds great Steuart! What about the third major issue with email?

The third issue is not filing emails appropriately. Many people get so many emails that they’ve given up on trying to file them. But we need to answer the question about WHERE to store an email once you’ve made a decision and need to move the email out of the inbox.  The key here is to simplify your email folder structure to make it as easy and quick as possible to use.

I suggest thinking of email folders like we think of a filing cabinet with 4 drawers. Every email goes into one of those 4 drawers first and then to a sub-folder. The 4 drawers are what I call Primary Folders. They are called External (clients, suppliers etc), Internal (departments, colleagues etc), Projects (subject, topic, project etc) and Admin (rosters, payroll etc). every current email folder can be dropped into this structure.

  1. You’re saying we can better structure email folders even if we don’t actually reduce the number?

Exactly! And then going a step further, the contents of each sub-folder can be emptied and put into the Primary Folder so that you end up with just 4 folders in total. You can then start relying more on the Sort and Search functions when retrieving email, which is not really all that often. This makes filing quicker, as you have only one of 4 choices. It makes retrieval quicker as you rely on the computer’s search functionality rather than trying to remember a complex folder hierarchy.

They say that 70% of what goes into a physical filing cabinet is never looked at again. With email, it’s more like 95% so why bother with a complex folder set up? Even better, why not put all emails into one single folder? In my workshops, I ask participants if they use Google and they always say, “yes, I use it all day, every day”. I then ask “what is google?” and they always say “it’s a search engine”. I then say “no it’s not – it’s a filing cabinet . . . all the information you need is in that filing cabinet . . . and it comes with a powerful search engine so you can find it.” The penny drops and people realise we can use the same principle with our email folders!

That’s a great summary Steuart. Thanks for sharing those tips.  

And for any workplaces that might be considering investing in staff training for Outlook and Email Management – contact us today on (03) 9725 3777.