The Bottom Line: Time to Tame the Email Beast

February 12, 2014
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

While email is an effective means of communications, it is has become a time-consuming black hole.

Ray Tomlinson sent the first email—to himself—in 1971, and the world hasn’t been the same since. It is estimated that today more than 100 billion emails are sent and received each day, and this number is expected to grow to 132 billion a day by the end of 2017. While email is an effective means of communications, it is has become a time-consuming black hole. If time sheets included a “Reading/Responding to Email” line item, the number of hours would most likely be 95 percent of the average office worker’s workweek. Throw in how often people check email during weekends, holidays and vacations on their tablets, smartphones and laptops, and the black hole just expands exponentially.

Admit it: When you’re getting ready for work in the morning, sometimes you wonder exactly what you’re going to do that day. You get to the office, open your email … and that pretty much wraps it up. First, you delete the spam. Second, you look for that email your boss swears he or she sent to you. Third, you try to figure out where you might have filed it. Fourth, you give up and sheepishly ask him or her to resend it. Fifth (yes, fifth), you look for the responses to the emails you sent yesterday. Sixth, you check the updates from your social media platforms. Seventh, you compose 10 emails. Lunch. Upon returning from lunch, and assuming you didn’t read email while eating, you look at your inbox only to find that the number of new emails has not decreased since this morning. In fact, the it has increased. So you repeat steps one, five and seven, except in the afternoon, you compose 20 emails. The next day, the cycle starts again, but on day two, you have twice as many emails to read because you sent 30 new emails yesterday, so step five takes you three times longer than it did yesterday.

And so it goes. Email eats time. How many times do you check your email when you’re away from the office? The reality is that you must continually check it, because if you don’t, you won’t want to open your email when you get back into the office.

But one day, you take a chance. You put your foot down. You say you’re in control. You say you’re not going to check email while on vacation or over the weekend. However, as soon as you return to the office, you realize you’ve made a mistake … a big mistake … a 343 unread messages mistake. (And don’t you love it when a coworker asks why you weren’t at this morning’s meeting, and you say it’s because you didn’t know about it and he replies, “I sent you an email.”)

All of this said, most agree that email has benefits that outweigh the drawbacks when, like any tool, it’s used well. In mass communications (like the e-newsletter you may be reading right now), email is an effective way of sharing information on a large scale. For organizations like AFCEA, it enables the distribution of important news and information quickly while giving recipients the choice to read it at their convenience. It allows all of us to multitask in the information age. And, to the dismay of some, it creates a “paper trail.”

The bottom line is that, like it or not, email is here to stay. But it is a communications tool, and it’s up to everyone to take control. Be novel and pick up the phone instead of emailing, and ask others to do the same. Let organizations you belong to know what you want to hear about so they can design their communications programs to meet your needs. Don’t let email hijack your awareness: Pay attention to the people around you and deal with the blizzard in your inbox later … trust me, it’s not going anywhere.

Tell us about how much time you spend reading and responding to the emails you receive. What are some effective ways you’ve found to tame the email beast?

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READ inbox from oldest to newest (but don't action ANY)
ACTION the inbox from NEWEST to oldest (avoids answering an email which has already been overtaken by later ones!)

I'm gonna try that! ml

I've found it makes a ton more sense to use either shared drives or SharePoint to collaboratively work on information products (documents, spreadsheets, briefings, etc.), that have multiple collaborators, or an author and multiple recipients. Use of email for information product sharing makes version control unwieldy and unmanageable. This leads to more emails in order to resolve confusion, and rework and redundancy become the order of the day. Repositories such as shared drives or sharepoint enable productive and efficient use of people's time to deal with or use information for decisions and actions. There's a collateral benefit as well, namely that there will no longer be inefficient and duplicative email storage of the products people save in their own computers or storage locations. Memory is cheap, sure, but it's not free.

...unfortunately, not the whole answer. It helps tame the beast, but then there are the emails among collaborators that ask "So did you look at that yet?" But I do agree with you that share drives and SharePoint or even Google Docs are a terrific alternative to passing docs back and forth and back and forth and...well...we all know that story!

Thanks for the comment! ml

I see emails like paper mails you read the senders address for recognition and put it aside for later if it is not as urgent like you know. That way you plan to read them later. Its all about control and time management.

For those of you in industry marketing out there - I work for the government and I currently get over 60 e-mails a day telling me how you are going to solve all my problems and asking for a "few minutes" of my time. Is it my fault I get these? Probably, but when I do research on the web (e.g., want to read a white paper) I usually have to provide an e-mail address to see it. That starts the flood. Do you think I read these e-mails? No, I have set up rules to delete most of them. I know they won't stop because even one or two leads generated from a thousand e-mails makes it worth your (minimal) effort in sending them. It's gotten so bad that NMCI now labels about 90% of them as MARKETING e-mail before I even see them.

You've brought up a lot of fantastic points, Bill. I feel for you! Being swamped with 60+ emails a day and all asking for your time must be a real pain. Soooo...what would be the best way for vendors to contact you? Is there some research THEY can do before sending an email to you? Would you prefer a phone call? I know companies are anxious to get the word out about their products. How can we help them get the info to you? ml

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