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A CHRO’s Guide to Dealing With Email Overload

Combatting email overload is really about how you vote with your time.

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So about those 262 Emails in an 8-hour span I received a few weeks ago …

How does one possibly deal with 262 Emails during the work day which is already filled with back-to-back meetings that usually run from 8:30-5? The truth is you can’t – and you don’t have to.

While we wait to see if laws like the one in France (which bans outside-of-working-hours Emails – is that even working?) or approaches touted by companies like Porsche (any correspondence between 7pm – 6am is automatically “returned to sender”) take root, here are tips I’ve adapted along the way to keep my In box somewhat manageable.

Disclaimer: Note the word “somewhat” – Email is never totally manageable. (If you believe it is I’d love to hear from you and learn your secrets.)

1) There are usually three categories of Email as I organize them: Ignore (30%), Nice to Know (35%), Need Action (35%). The trick is figuring out which are which – and getting to the ones that are most important and relevant to your areas of focus.

2) Ignore the “Ignore” category. I can usually count on 30-50 unsolicited (and unwanted) solicitation Emails a day. I love these because it gives me instant gratification to delete them and watch my In box numbers drop. There rarely is enough time in a day to read the “Need Action” Emails, let alone dozens of Emails trying to sell everything under the sun. I used to think it was rude not to respond (as everyone deserves at least an acknowledgment); it’s not – it’s a matter of survival. Giving a personalized response to over 50 unknown individuals a day who don’t add value to what you’re trying to achieve is a major time bandit. Don’t fall prey to it. The solicitors get it. You are likely 1 of 100 solicitations they sent out that day anyway.

3) Scan through the “Nice to Know” and “Need Action” Emails to discern which is which. I have a “Nice to Know” folder where I tuck things away that I want to review in more detail but don’t have the time to do on a daily basis. This folder is great to sift through on airplane rides, while waiting in doctor’s offices, at home in the evening, and once or twice a week by blocking 30 minutes on my calendar during the day.

Be careful of letting this folder get out of control. While it’s nice to have deep-dive information on everything as you might need it “someday” – you might also need the Pythagorean theorem “someday.” (Editorial: I actually remember it from sophomore geometry class, shockingly. Haven’t used it since then.)

If somehow I wound up needing to use the Pythagorean theorem in my work, I’d be sure to contact an expert to have a conversation on what I really need to know. It’s more effective than relying on an Email that likely doesn’t impart the whole story anyway. This is the equivalent of “Nice to Know” emails. For ones you just can’t get to, move on. If you need a crash course in something that was discussed in an Email, there’s always a way to resend it.

4) Be clear on your priorities. This is absolutely critical to ensure you can discern the “Need Action” Emails that you should pay attention and respond to. Remember that not everyone else’s priority is YOUR priority; you need to vote with your time. I try to practice what I preach as my time will usually be spent on those priorities that are the top areas of my focus.

Yes, there will be fire drills and “drops” (those wonderful moments where things drop into your Email from left field but require an immediate response based on who is sending them – usually someone higher up in the organization structure). That’s just life. Get used to it. Dispense with them as quickly as possible so they don’t distract you from the real focus areas.

5) Invite folks to follow up. I used to get annoyed when I would send Emails to senior leaders in the organization and wonder why it took so long to get a response. Years later, I know why. Back then, my Email was one of perhaps 262 an HR leader received in a day – and of course, I thought my Email was the most important.

Being on the other side of that In box, I now understand and appreciate even more the value of follow up. I generally give someone two to three business days to acknowledge and/or respond to my Emails before I chase, and have come to expect the same. I appreciate that folks aren’t sitting by their desks waiting for my Email, just as I am not.

When someone follows up with me on an Email that has been lost in the abyss of my In box, I’m upfront about it. “Sorry – our In boxes continually overfloweth… what do you need?” and get to the ask. Many times it’s more effective to talk through the content of the Email anyway. I try to minimize how much I’m chased but when I spend every minute of every day in meetings and get hundreds of Emails a day (that you can’t always read that day because of said meetings), well … you know.

6) Be clear with your team how you prefer to communicate. If there is a super time-sensitive issue and an immediate answer is needed, encourage team members to reach out to you live versus letting them hope you see their Email buried in hundreds in your In box. I always tell folks – if something is super time sensitive, to ensure you get my attention – text me or call me.

7) Use Email management tools. Here’s an easy-to-read article that outlines practical tips to use your Email application to keep you even more organized. 

8) Here’s a novel concept: Talk live versus Email. Love this FastCompany flow chart that reminds us what Email is really for and the value of having live conversations:

One-on-one live conversations are great times to catch up. I often “bundle” my topics for team members to talk through in one-on-ones instead of sending Emails every time something comes to mind. Or send an Email with a simple note, “Remind me to talk to you about X when we meet.” I appreciate when folks do the same with me. We usually work through twice as many topics in a 30-minute live conversation than we would with days of Email tennis.

9) Follow the basics of Email etiquette

For those Emails I read and re-read and simply can’t figure out what the point is, admittedly I move on (and wait for #5 above to play out). If something is important enough to the sender, he/she will chase you. Help your cause by using proper and concise subject lines is critical to help the receiver determine how to respond to you.

Warning: following these tips will not alleviate the hundreds of Emails you are bombarded with daily, but it WILL help you utilize your time most effectively, which is the real play here. May the force be with you.

Originally published on LinkedIn.com

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