Email Overload: Fighting a Forest Fire with a Bucket

Frustrated by your inbox? Image: Qfamily/Flickr
Our inboxes are getting bigger and managing email is demanding more time out of our workdays. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and overburdened, but new technology is making it possible to prioritize incoming messaging to reclaim the productivity that online communications had promised us.

Email is relentless as the primary form of business communication and is expected to stay that way with volume growing in double digits every year, according to Radicati Group. Some analysts project that social media could replace email, but it has thus far just cluttered up already busy inboxes with a near constant stream of notifications and updates. The time challenge may be further compounded by the result of downsizing and employees being asked to take on more work and hence more email.

Attempting to tame email overload without using the right tools is akin to fighting a forest fire with a bucket. As it is, many workers already spend a third of their email time before and after working hours processing email, and attempting to manually manage email just compounds the productivity problem.

What options do we have? One solution that defies common sense is “zero inbox” — regularly emptying your inbox to no emails left. Making an empty inbox a goal in itself seems like a huge time waster. Imagine your epitaph; he died with an empty inbox. The fabled management guru Peter Drucker wrote: “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things. There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

Your time is a zero-sum game. There should be better things to do in life than cleaning out one’s inbox.

Constantly checking your email destroys productivity. Study results vary, but one minute of interruption can cost between 15 to 24 minutes of productivity. Other actions for managing the inbox merely act as temporary remedies, i.e. swiping emails into one folder or another, not responding to CC’d emails, or programming complex filters that must be constantly updated as things change. Our client data shows that 19% or more of important email is never read and 36% or more of unimportant email is read – even when multiple techniques are being used to handle email overload. Clearly, new technology is needed.

The solution to email overload must address two key behavioral drivers for managing email; uncertainty that there may be an important email in the inbox, and fear there will be disastrous consequences if there is a late or no response. That solution is email prioritization that is automatic and dynamic.

We live in the age of “smart” technology. Smart drives many things from airplanes to electronic trading to appliances. Smart also works for learning from your email behavior to automatically and dynamically prioritize your email in multiple levels. Best practices for managing time that include systems such as Getting Things Done (GTD), 7 habits, and the Pomodoro Method, all emphasize the importance of setting priorities and planning actions. What if our inbox could do that for us?

Using smart technology to apply best practices to manage email is the only effective way to take back control of the inbox and our work lives. Convert the forest fire into a campfire.

Manish Sood is co-founder and CEO of Messagemind


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