Even Robinson Crusoe couldn't get respite from the demands of email. Photo: RapidEye / Getty.
According to recent data, us Brits spend an astonishing 90 days a year dealing with email, mostly at work. The report also revealed:
- In 2016, UK office workers spent 10% more time dealing with emails than in 2015.
- 79% of us check messages outside office hours.
- We check an average 43 work emails at the weekend.
- 2 out of 3 people check email on holiday.
As if the stress of finding time to reply to emails in work is not enough, smartphones and mobile technology mean we’re increasingly finding the problem spilling over into our private lives, with potentially damaging implications for our relationships and health. Here we look at some sensible strategies for dealing with overflowing inboxes.
If your staring at a huge backlog of unanswered messages, make some time to organise your emails into separate folders marked ‘urgent and important’, ‘urgent’, ‘important’, and ‘other’ (or whatever titles work for you). The main thing is you’re identifying emails that definitely need your attention. Like answering emails, this exercise could drag on if you let it, so set yourself a time limit.
Reply in your own reasonable time
If an email’s not particularly urgent or important, reply in a reasonable timeframe – or even (shock horror!) not at all. Remember, plently of people send or forward emails that they haven’t really considered carefully themselves anyway – often to clear their own inbox! If it really matters to the sender, they’ll get back to you.
Schedule time for emails and stick to it
According to the survey mentioned above, the average UK worker is spending around 3 hours a day on email. Is that necessary for you to do your job well? Unless you’re in customer services and answering emails is your job, the answer is probably no. If you could claw back even half of that time, how could you use it to be a more productive and effective member of staff (leading to better pay, respect and prospects)? There are very few emails that need immediate attention and if they do, it’s up to the sender to contact you more directly by phone or in person. Choose one or two set time periods each day to answer email, and stick to them strictly. Perhaps these will be times after you have completed the day’s most important task(s) – arrange things in a way which works best for you.
Now, turn it off!
We live in a culture of infinite distraction and pinging phones and desktop alerts have a lot to answer for!
Research by the Future Work Centre found that:
- people who automatically receive email on their devices were more likely to report higher levels of email pressure; and
- people who leave their email on all day were much more likely to say that they experienced email pressure.
So close your email program, log out of messaging and mute your phone outside of the times you’ve allocated for checking mail. The less frequently we check or are reminded of emails, the less we’re going to feel overwhelmed by them. Meanwhile, this will help you concentrate on tasks and projects you actually get assessed on and paid for.
Take a proper lunch break
Don’t let your down-time become an extra email-checking session. You need this time to recharge. Get away from your desk and go for a walk or have lunch with a friend or co-worker.
Make a call, pay a visit
Long email exchanges are often a time-consuming and less effective substitute for much more straightforward conversations in person or on the phone. The longest ones are often postponing a difficult conversation which, painful as it may be, is better faced directly and without delay. Walking across the office to chat to a colleague gives you a break from your screen, builds your working relationship with them and minimises the scope for misunderstanding. It means you won't have the issue hanging over you all day (or week, or month!) and might just allow you to go home half an hour earlier.
Use your Out of Office
Finally, ‘OOO’ isn’t just for your holidays and days off. It refers to all of your own time – evenings and weekends included. If you are getting a lot of messages outside of hours, using it as soon as you clock off each day can be an effective and professional way to set boundaries with those who might otherwise assume you are always on call.