7 easy ways to overcome email overload

7 easy ways to overcome email overload

7 easy ways to overcome email overload

In Success on the Far Side of Fifty I work hard to provide solutions to the challenges facing all of us. Todays topic is no different. The amount of email and other electronic communication we receive will continue to grow exponentially. As a result it is critical to create efficient systems with which to manage all of this information. Todays post titled “7 easy ways to overcome email overload”  is aimed at providing you with some ideas to assist in managing your email.

Timothy Ferris, Author of The Four Hour Work Week once said that Americans have two great fears; getting fat and having too much email. While I am not sure if I totally agree with Tim’s assessment, I do agree that managing email an important issue.

Studies have shown email (and other forms of electronic communication such as instant messaging) to be extremely intrusive. These forms of communication can have a much greater impact than most of us realise or care to admit. Participants in one small study conducted by Renaud et al. (2006) found that although users estimated that they checked email once per hour, they really checked it every 5 minutes. Other studies indicate that the majority of office workers spend in the order of 6 hours per day on email.

In AOL’s 2010 survey 47% of email users contacted claim to be addicted to email. This means that, worldwide, there are probably over a billion people who would ADMIT to being addicted to email.  It is also worthwhile to note that people typically under report addiction, so it is likely that true number of email addicted people is much higher than the estimate of one billion people.

Some experts claim that email is as addictive as slot machine gaming. The fact that email is addictive is no accident.

Psychologists have dug deeply into the email phenomenon and learned that it is so addictive because it contains what experts call a “variable interval reinforcement schedule”.  The theory behind variable interval reinforcement schedule is that if you want to create and permanently embed a new behaviour in an animal the best way to do it is by rewarding the behaviour only sometimes and at random intervals. This form of intermittent reward is ideal for maximizing behavioural reinforcement efforts in all animals from birds to primates.

Now I can hear you asking what animal behavior reinforcement strategies has to do with email addiction; permit me to explain. Sometimes and only sometimes, when we check email we get a reward. The reward might be an email from a friend, a funny joke or  even just some recognition that someone notices we exist.  This occasional reward exactly fits the pattern of variable interval reinforcement.

Email designers have also incorporated little notification chime, that when it dings, prompts us to check our email. Each time we hear that little chime a small dose of dopamine is released. Dopamine is a naturally occurring chemical in our bodies that triggers a pleasant sensation as an automatic reward for a positive behaviour, The chime is simply another form of behavioural reinforcement.

It doesn’t take much exposure to email before we are dealing with a perfectly ingrained behaviour. The dinger dings and we automatically stop what we are doing and check our inbox.  We quickly become programmed to click on the email to see if there is a reward waiting for us in our inbox.

Ahh the miracle of behavioural reinforcement – it works as well on humans as it does on the critters we use it on.

The other side to this addictive behaviour is the fact that people who are addicted to getting email are also people who send lots of it out.  (For every email you send out you get 1.75 emails in return). All of you addicted people are creating havoc in the lives of us less addicted people.

All of this addictive behaviour results in the very situation that many of us find ourselves – we become slaves to a constantly growing in basket. Our in boxes are filled with information we have no time to read, and requests from people we probably don’t know, asking us to do things that probably have nothing to do with our priorities. (Speaking of which – stop what you are doing and sign up to get my blog sent right to your in box. I won’t spam you or share your email address).

Before I got smart about it, I spent as least as much time on email as any human being on the planet. I am going to guess that I spent at least 4 to 6 hours per day working on my email. Each and every email was responded to, dealt with and filled into one of several hundred folders. I often spent hours writing multi page emails that I sent to various people who returned equally lengthy responses. What a waste of time!! My big problem was that I also had other work that I had to do, so I spent years working in the day and doing business email in the evening.

About 5 years ago I went to a local university and took several Lean Management courses; as a result of that I started closely examining my life to see if the activities I was engaging in were really adding to the quality of my life and the answer was a resounding NO. For those of you who don’t know much about Lean management check out the link above.

Once I began to consider the value (or lack thereof) that I was deriving from certain activities I quickly realized that I needed to take a much different approach to managing certain aspects of my life. My approach to email landed right at the top of that pile.

After several years of work I now have an extremely efficient system for dealing with email overload (which at the same time helped clear me of my own addiction)

Below are my 7 easy ways to overcome email overload and eliminating email addiction all in one fell swoop.

  • I changed my perspective on how I view email.

I stopped “reading,” “checking” and “reviewing” my email and started “processing” email.

Before I began processing my email I would just go into my mail and sort of look around in it. I didn’t have a system so I wouldn’t accomplish much. Some emails would be dealt with, some not and I would often have to deal with emails multiple times. I spent lots of time on my email but because I didn’t have a plan for dealing with it and I didn’t get a whole lot accomplished.

Once I adopted a mindset of “processing email” I began dealing with it in a much more structured and efficient way. I developed a rules and a system for managing email and the time I spent managing email dropped by at least 80%. At the same time I actually got much better at dealing with important emails.

  • If an email requires more than 4 lines I make a phone call. 

Generally I dislike lengthy emails and if an email takes more than 4 lines (including 1 line as a greeting and another line as a close) I pick up the phone. Emails are time-consuming to write and read and yet are still inefficient in conveying messages. Email is best suited for simple and direct communications; I learned that for more complex interactions a conversation is ALWAYS better.


Given that conversation is far better for setting context, defining expectations and clarifying understanding person to person contact is always better. Email does not allow for that level of interaction.


However following a conversation a quick email is often useful to document understandings and agreements.

  • Turn off email notifications

Once we get a notification we have an email the temptation to open the inbox is impossible to resist. The mere action of turning off email notification can save hours each and eliminate the email distraction.

  • Schedule times to manage email

Normally I suggest that people schedule a time in the morning and in the afternoon to deal with email. The amount of time you allot to each session depends on the volume of email you receive.

Personally I don’t look at checking email as one of my most important tasks so I don’t usually look at my inbox until later in the day. Before I check email I work out, meditate, have breakfast and complete my journal.

The key here is to avoid checking email throughout the day (which is why turning off your notifications is a critical step. However when you are working on email it is important to focus your time and attention to ONLY email.

If you need help in keeping focussed and productive then have a look at my post called 10 Great Ways to Take Knowledge to Action. You can find it HERE.

You can also check out one of the very best productivity techniques ever created, check out the Pomodoro Technique HERE.

  • Take immediate action on each email

When I look at an email do one of three things; I delete it, I retain it, or I action it (which usually means retaining it too).

When managing my own email I only action about 20% of the emails, the rest are deleted. Learning to be ruthless in your decision-making is key to success. You are probably never going to go back and review the email or read the attachment anyway and if the information is truly important it will show up again.

When I decide to take action on an email I always attach a task to it. Outlook has a great system for tracking tasks and I also use a free application called TASK LABELS.

  • Simplify your filing system

One of my biggest time wasters was the amount of time and effort I put in to filing my email. Eventually I came to the conclusion that there was no benefit to all of the files, so I got rid them and now only have a single file called archive.

I have my inbox and my archive and that’s it.

I do recommend that you get decently proficient with various ways to search for information though. Learning the best ways to search for information is a great time saver.

  • Create a solid process

Success in life is based upon process and systems. Every system works perfectly to provide exactly the results it is designed to produce. In order to get the results you want and need from your email you need to create and maintain a solid process.

The steps in my process are as follows:

  • Before I open a new email I go through all my existing tasks and close off outstanding ones,
  • I quickly scan through all new email and either delete, file or action all remaining emails,
  • I close out my email program and go about my day. I DO NOT check emails again until about 3:30 pm.


So there are my ultra-simple and effective 7 easy ways to overcome email overload.

What process do you use, or do you have one at all?

Please feel free to share your comments, thoughts or ideas. Feel free to sign up to receive “Success on the Far Side of Fifty” in  your inbox and also feel free to shoot me a personal email if there is anything I can possibly do for you.

Have a fantastic week!!

Joe Grainger

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