Email overload: 13 tips to help

If time is our most valuable resource these days, then email is the scourge of the modern age.


Recently I received a disturbing email from a friend informing me that he had replied to 7,545 emails in 2011. Included in his email—and the irony is not lost that he sent an email—was an analysis of how much time he had spent replying to those emails.

By his “conservative” calculation, he estimated he had devoted a full 45 days (19 percent of his annual workable time) replying to email last year. Of course this is just the time spent replying to emails; it does not account for his time reading all his incoming emails.

Naturally, this made me wonder: Is my friend managing his time and email correctly? I’ve received many of his emails, and I feel confident saying “no.” Why? For one thing, he’s not a professional communicator.

As PR pros, we have a distinct advantage—namely organization and writing skills—over other professionals to bring greater sanity, efficiency, and effectiveness to email correspondence. I get highly discouraged when working with fellow PR professionals who do not communicate clearly in email. To me, that’s adding to dysfunction and ineffectiveness, not to mention doing a discredit to the terms “PR pro” and “professional communicator.”

Below are some suggestions for managing email:

Stop and evaluate

Not every email needs an immediate reply, but every email needs an action from you. You can reply, not reply, or save it for later. When determining which to do, keep the following questions in mind:

  • Who sent it? If it’s from your boss or client, reply within a reasonable amount of time.
  • What is the urgency? Is the email so crucial that you should you drop what you’re doing and respond immediately? Probably fewer than 10 percent of your emails require such attention.
  • What is the context? Is the email important to the work I am doing or will be doing soon?
  • What is my “call to action”? If I reply, is my reply clear? For example, do I need more information from the sender? Am I going to forward this to my boss? Am I going to put an action on my task list for next week? Be clear to yourself and to the sender about your next steps.

Set ‘to’ and ‘copy’ expectations

This is an important and challenging step. If you’re a manager, it’s vital that you’re clear about which types of emails your subordinates should copy you on and when you would prefer an email to a phone call or meeting.

For example, I tell my colleagues that I want to be copied on all important client deliverable emails—those including a case study article, press release, etc. That’s it. I don’t want emails about their professional development or employment terms; we’ll discuss those issues face to face.

Set these expectations to reduce the emails from your team members. Do the same with your supervisor. Setting clear expectations and following through are essential to any project, and email is no different.

Consolidate topics and actually talk

Whether you are a manager or a subordinate, remember: If you send a lot of emails, you’re going to receive a lot of emails. Try picking up the phone or talking face to face, especially if you have multiple topics to discuss.

Block off ’email only’ time

You should set parameters for when you will be reading and responding to emails. Communicate this to your supervisor, team members, customers, etc.

Unless I have a meeting, my colleagues know that my time for actively checking email is from 8 to 9 a.m. and from 4:30 to 5 p.m. If I don’t reply to an email during that time and they have an urgent issue for me, they should come find me.

Tailor your communication

After considering steps No. 1 and 2, you should tailor your communication based on the person and the context. For example, I would not advise using email to communicate potentially sensitive or negative news, if you can avoid it. Likewise, email is not the forum to fully detail your five-year strategic marketing plan.

If your goal is to impress your boss and you’ve determined that email is the best avenue, be sure you write sharply and concisely. Remember: Email can be quick, but a phone conversation or an in-person meeting can be more rich and effective. Consider your audience, the topic, and the urgency of the matter.

Be clear

This seems obvious, right? Emails are often written quickly and without much thought, creating a challenge for the recipient.

Murky emails can cause ambiguity, confusion, stress—even an obstacle to productivity. Don’t add to the confusion and the dysfunction. Be clear about whom you are addressing and what you’re requesting or assigning in your email.

Also, specify deadlines. Take a few minutes to craft one well-written email to move the process along efficiently, rather than hastily sending out three incomplete emails.

Below are some additional tactics you can use immediately:

1. Include a strong subject line. Be concise, and use compelling words to get attention. Your email’s worthless if no one opens it.

2. Use numbers or bullet points. This is essential if you’re covering multiple issues; doing so will help the recipient address each one individually.

3. Watch the clock. If you take more than 15 minutes to write an email, it’s better to condense it and augment it with a phone call or in-person meeting.

4. Be careful when forwarding. If you’re forwarding an email chain and there is something of importance in that chain, don’t just use “FYI below” and expect the recipient to see what you’re hoping they see. Point out what they should pay specific attention to.

5. Get closure. Include calls to action and deadlines.

6. Avoid multiple sends. Wait for your recipients to respond before sending out another email on the same topic.

7. Wait if you have doubts. If you’re second-guessing your email, there’s probably a good reason. Listen to that voice in the back of your head. Remember: You can’t “un-send” an email. Better to keep it in your draft folder and think about it for an hour than to regret your haste.

Time is everyone’s most valuable resource. By using smart and effective communication strategies for email, we can free up more time to be productive or do the things we want to do.

Matt Spaulding is the president of Spaulding Communications, a strategic, full-service communications firm that combines brand knowledge and business insight with communications expertise for its clients. This article originally appeared on the Spaulding Communications website at www.spauldingcommunications.com.

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