Train yourself to avoid email overload


By Neil Amato

Want to save time at work? Rethink your approach to email.

That’s the message of a couple of productivity experts, who themselves follow strict rules for when and how they read and reply to email messages.

Take Hayley Watts, a corporate trainer with Think Productive. Send her an email message, and you get a reply that starts:

“Thanks for getting in touch. I process my emails once a day.”

Not everyone is that disciplined, and not every person’s job can allow for being away from their inboxes so long.

But Watts’s message shields her from the distraction of a vibration, ding, or other notification of each message. And the next time someone considers writing her a message, they may talk themselves out of it before hitting send.

Bob Pozen, a productivity expert, MIT instructor, and the author of the book Extreme Productivity, offers three tips for workers to improve productivity with regard to email volume.

  1. Train yourself to check messages once every two hours. “Some people look at their email every other minute,” he said. “It means they’re spending a huge amount of time on things that are not very important.”
  2. Skip messages that aren’t important. Pozen estimates that workers can skip 60% to 70% of the messages they receive, and he recommends setting up filters that funnel email that is not vital – based on the sender or the subject. Instead of looking at every offer for software, for example, set up filters for those senders that you can check weekly or monthly.
  3. Respond immediately to significant messages. Pozen said significance can be based on the content or the sender and that most people can determine on a quick read if a message is important. If a more measured response is required, then set a calendar reminder to reply later, but not too late. Pozen has an acronym to follow for this practice: OHIO – only handle it once.

Pozen is not a proponent of trying to get an inbox down to zero unread messages – for one reason: “If you’re reading all your emails, you’re making a big mistake,” he said.

Some people save messages, insisting they will get to them later. But discipline regarding which need reading and which need deleting is difficult for many.

Les Nettleton, the director of information technology for Bourgeois Bennett LLC, a CPA firm in Metairie, Louisiana, has this solution: “You highlight everything that’s older than one month and you hit the ‘Delete’ key and you don’t worry about the ramifications.”

Neil Amato (Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.