What is Email Overload, and How Can You Avoid It?
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Do you ever feel like your inbox just has email after email continually piling up, a non-stop flow of messages, requests, and FYIs that add up to a mountain made of small, stressful tasks until the sheer volume scares you from opening your inbox at all? If this is at all relatable, you have truly been overloaded with email before.
It’s not just you, though. “Email overload” is a real phenomenon that has been scientifically studied, with serious implications for productivity and mental health. Luckily, there are also simple techniques you can use to manage the barrage of daily emails.
Does email overload really exist?
For some reason, many people seem to believe that email is what happens in-between their “real work.” However, email is real work, and has all the same actions and emotional stressors as your other projects. It merits your focused attention when you check email, and there are real consequences for those who do not treat email as real work since it can lead to friction with your coworkers, boss, and clients.
In 2017, the technology research company The Radicati Group estimated that 132 billion business emails are sent per day. Forbes estimated that the average employee spends over 13 hours a week focusing specifically on their emails, and the Washington Post reported that the average worker will spend upwards of 47,000 hours of work time processing their emails throughout their entire career.
Why does email overload happen?
Losing track of tasks which leads to constantly emailing coworkers or checking-in on projects
Fear of “missing out” which means getting too involved in every email and chat conversation
Wanting to look good in front of your boss and feeling compelled to respond quickly to messages.
Email overload hurts your productivity
Naturally, this has negative overall effects on the workplace. Forbes estimates that email overload wastes up to $1,650 per year per employee. A study conducted by the Danwood Group showed that, on average, it takes 64 seconds to recover from an email interruption and return to work at the same work rate as before the interruption.
Email overload causes serious stress and even physical illness
A study at the University of California Irvine found that people who frequently check email are more scattered and have an elevated heart rate, keeping them in a constant state of high-alert—which is linked to many other physical health problems). A 2019 study from the Manchester University found that email overload is actually causing people to get ill, since it is associated with higher workload stress, eventually leading to psychological strain, negative emotions, and lower organizational commitment.
Additionally, an overloaded inbox means the employee is more likely to be checking it and thinking about work stressors outside of work hours. In a study of over 185 million hours of working time, productivity research company RescueTime found that 40% of people use their computers after 10 PM, with 26% of all work taking place outside of normal working hours.
Distractions might be minimized if you have a well-arranged work station, such as a standing desk to optimize for blood flow and movement breaks, or an ergonomic chair for better posture and back support. Still, even the best equipment and setup cannot eliminate the endless distractions of your inbox which takes away from productive inbox organizing or project work.
Solutions for Email Overload
Start deleting, keep deleting, and don’t stop until you have regained a sense of control over your inbox. Delete all of the unnecessary messages that have been piling up for months, taking up memory space. Be thorough and brutal, especially for emails for which your response has long since been expected. Remember that up to 80% of emails can be deleted after a simple glance, and have discipline with what is realistically to keep. Most things can also be marked unread—or better yet, archived—if there is information you think you might need later
Don’t make big decisions over email
Do not use email for big decisions or complex issues, since these will often warrant tons of back-and-forth replies. Any type of discussion that requires real, thoughtful communication should not be handled over email unless absolutely critical. Know what is better handled face-to-face or by phone, and by modeling good email practice, you can encourage those around you to only send messages when it’s necessary and appropriate.
Brevity is your friend; write shorter, smarter emails that warrant faster responses by getting to the bottom line of your message efficiently. Try capping your email to no more than three to five sentences, which will require you to communicate your message concisely.
Of course, avoid sending one-word emails in response to questions, since this is rude and creates unnecessary email buildup for the receiver.
Use the ‘One Touch’ rule
How many times have you gotten an email only to leave it in your inbox, mark it as unread, or come back to it over and over?
Make the most of your inbox time by committing to the ‘one touch’ rule coined by entrepreneur Paul English. For every email, scan it and then immediately either:
Delete it – Be disciplined to delete or archive most of your emails.
Do something about it – Take action right away. Better yet, do it in 2-minutes or less.
Delegate it – Forward it to the right person with clear instructions of what you expect (not just an FYI).
Defer – Only in the worst-case scenario, file the email to a different folder to take action later, or try Gmail’s reminder tool to make these emails re-appear at a later date.
Use templates and canned responses
Most of us get emails that require the same or similar responses each day. You can drastically cut down your inbox time by creating and using canned responses and templates. This list of 10 canned responses can help you get started with standard replies, and also explain how to set up custom automated responses in Gmail.
Create automated ‘rules’ for filtering
Most email platforms allow you to create ‘rules’ that automatically filter your email and optimize your productivity. For example, any email that has “FYI” in the title could automatically get filtered to an “FYI” folder to reference later but not waste time replying to. Or, perhaps any email sent by a specific, needy client gets bumped to the top of your inbox when you open it.
When you’re on vacation, that includes email
Email is still ‘work,’ in many cases requiring more brain power than your actual projects to balance the social dynamics of digital communication. When you’re out of the office, remember that this includes your inbox, and resist the temptation to check email. It will be a much-needed break from the email overload.
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