Top five tips for controlling email overload

Tracey Porter

Email has changed the way we do business, but if not managed correctly, this modern day communication tool can also hinder productivity.

In its report The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies research firm McKinsey Global Institute found the average Australian office worker spends 28 hours per week (or nearly 1500 hours a year) reading, writing or responding to emails.

In a survey it did on wasting time at work, software firm Atlassian says most businesses receive 304 emails per week, with the average employee checking their email 36 times per hour.

Atlassian suggests it takes 16 minutes to refocus after reading an email. It has even put a dollar cost on this and says annual productivity costs per employee equate to $1250 for spam and $1800 for unnecessary emails.

So how do you manage your inbox without compromising your ability to work?

Schedule time to check your inbox

Freelance graphic artist Miranda Douglas has outside work commitments that mean there are certain times each week when she is not in front of her computer or smart phone. On the days where she is otherwise engaged, Douglas tries only to check her emails once in the morning, once at lunch and again in the evening.

“My working life is hectic and I have certain days and times where I teach and am completely unable to get to my emails. I manage this by always keeping my clients informed, i.e. if they suggest a deadline for a Monday, I let them know that I will not be able to meet it until the evening.”

Action now

Faced with the challenge of helping students and staff manage the large volume of their emails, Curtin University developed a specific email protocol on accessing and storing emails efficiently. It says email should only be used for communications that need to be kept; the phone should be used for non-crucial matters. It suggests moving emails that require action straight into your calendar and, if necessary, delegating by turning it into a task and assigning it to someone else.

I like to use different email addresses for my different professional hats.

Use folders and flags

Although the vast majority of emails you receive can be deleted, business-related emails are usually kept to minimise any chance of miscommunication. To keep an accurate electronic paper trail, Douglas suggests using folders and flags to organise your inbox.

“This clears out my inbox of loads of clutter but still ensures I can find that email from three months ago. I also find the ‘flag’ feature invaluable, but don't forget to turn it off when you have attended to that important business.”

Turn off notifications

Finance broker Jayden Vecchio of the Discovery Finance Group says inbox alerts can be distracting, so it’s important to turn the notifications off if you want to get work done.

“I’ve even removed the mail icon from the bottom tray of my phone and hid it in a folder to stop me from constantly checking.”

Use different email accounts

E-newsletters and advertisements can overwhelm your inbox and bury important messages. Douglas says having a number of different email accounts also helps her prioritise work, depending on the subject matter.

“I like to use different email addresses for my different professional hats. My uni mail is for my teaching practice, my mailbox is for my freelance work and my Gmail account is for junk mail.”

Tracey Porter

Tracey Porter is a career journalist whose mug shot appears everywhere from daily newspapers and online news sites to business and consumer magazine titles.

Image: Jeroen Bennink, Flickr Creative Commons license

How to maximise the freedom and flexibility of your business

Technological acceleration has seen business owners aim to combine a versatile lifestyle with their professional ambitions.