The Science of
Surviving Large Volumes of Email
By Francis Wade
Thursday, 24 March
It’s likely that you are facing a rapid increase
in the number of email messages you receive. What should you do in the future
if you decided to take on a new project or accept a promotion? How will you
The solution isn’t to avoid email.
Some people tell others “I’m not good with email,” “Call me instead” or “I
don’t have time for email.” Some just lie – “I didn’t get your message…” All
these responses are fast becoming signs of incompetence.
However, it’s not our fault. We
were never taught how to manage large numbers of incoming messages. In the
absence of proper training, most of us defaulted to snail-mail techniques. In
the post office world, mail is meant to be read slowly, leisurely and
passively. It’s an approach that worked when you received 20 or 30 email
messages per week. Now, as you approach the average of global 150 messages per
day, it fails because it just doesn’t scale. Here is a way that you can cope.
Real Problem: Triggers
The first realization is that the problem isn’t the number of bits and bytes
hurtling at you via email in cyber-space. It’s your response to the triggers
lying within each message that creates an issue.
To explain: we read email, looking
for triggers for new time demands (i.e. self-generated tasks.) This conversion
is normal, but it’s a mechanism you can manage.
What you can’t control is the
number of incoming messages. By design, your email address is an open
invitation to the general public to send you an infinite number of potential
triggers. This has created a problem over time.
Today, you are probably trying to
process large numbers of messages using the same techniques you used to process
small numbers. Now, you are faced with a scaling error which can only be
avoided by learning to switch between two different modes of thinking and
One – Skepticism, Deletion and Emptying
This is the mode to adopt when you first open your Inbox. It’s one of
sprinting, as you empty your Inbox as fast as possible. To help focus your
attention, use a kitchen timer with a loud ticking sound – it will help you
stay in the ultra-focused state that’s required.
As you process each message,
imagine acting like a skeptical, rigid quality inspector at the end of a
production line. Your job would be to accept only a handful of items, continuing
until the last one has been processed. In factories, there’s only a single
exception allowed. If you discover a bonafide emergency that risks a loss of
life, limb or property, then you can stop everything, rectifying the situation
before production is resumed, taking as little time as possible.
In the case of email, you should
also pause to handle emergencies. Once handled, return to your sprint to
process and remove all the messages out of your Inbox as fast as you can.
You should opt for one of the following:
– If an email has no triggers,
immediately delete the item or save it to your archives, far outside your
– If it includes a valid trigger
(and, therefore, passes your inspection), also remove it from your Inbox. Store
it safely for later execution in Mode Two in one of the following ways. Either
add it to a To-Do List, put it in your calendar, give it your auto-scheduler or
store important information in the right database (such as an address book.)
At the end of this mode, your
email Inbox is empty.
(N.B. The technique of leaving
email messages in your Inbox, marking them as unread, only works for small
Two – Thoughtful Action On Your Time Demands
In Mode Two you are no longer
sprinting. Now, you can execute delayed time demands which were safely stored.
As you do so, notice that the act
of completing time demands relieves stress. This occurs because it rids us of
the nagging feeling that something is incomplete, a phenomena psychologists
call the Zeigarnik Effect. The two-mode approach works to alleviate that
feeling because recent research shows that it also disappears when you manage
your time demands well.
To keep stress away, you must
commit to entering Mode One on a scheduled basis, rather than randomly. Turning
off your PC, tablet or smartphone’s email reminders is a start.
Another technique is to stay in
Mode One as long as you can, without being distracted by non-emergencies such
as Facebook or the news. This ensures that all potential triggers have been
handled, relieving you of the Zeigarnik Effect.
Let colleagues know you are
answering email on a schedule. If someone insists on immediate responses,
politely hand them a copy of my June 12, 2012, Gleaner article: “How Executives
Unwittingly Turn Employees into Morons.”
Handling large numbers of email
has now become a matter of professional competence. Sound techniques are the
only solution to a challenge that will never go away.
Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a
keynote speaker and a management consultant. To receive a free summary of links
to his past articles, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org