Cut the Email Clutter

Most of us spend too much time reading and answering emails every day. Here’s how to get those messages under control.


David Wood’s email inbox contains a mere 40 messages, max. It’s a thing of pared-down beauty. It has to be. “I have lots of deadlines that are important for my clients,” says the Toronto-based small-business controller.

Since he’s responsible for the day-to-day financial tasks for several small companies, there’s no messing around with tax filings or payroll. Most of the 80 or so emails he gets daily route automatically to various client folders. These subfolders also make sure he sends his outgoing messages from the correct email address – he has seven.

While this setup may seem over-the-top, his system allows him to keep his emailing to a minimum. He spends about 20 percent of his week sending and responding to messages, which is less than the average office worker, who spends 28 percent of their time managing email, according to management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

The average office worker spends 28 percent of their time managing email.

As innovative as email has been, most of us know that it also messes with our time. We all want to answer that message, and that ends up interrupting whatever task we’re working on. “Email is forcing people to be highly reactive,” says Dawn O’Connor, director of Think Productive Canada, a Calgary-based company that helps organizations increase productivity.

If Wood’s system makes, as he says, “life a little bit less stressful,” could there be a way the rest of us can avoid drowning in an avalanche of emails? There are actually a number of email-reducing options we can employ, says O’Connor. Here’s how.

Go zero inbox

Zero inbox is exactly what it sounds like: no messages in a person’s main email folder. The idea is to automatically reroute messages to other folders, so you don’t feel the pressure of answering every note that comes into your inbox.

Wood’s client-folder approach is a good one, but O’Connor has a system, too. She separates her emails into three folders marked “action,” “reading” and “waiting/pending.” Action refers to things that she needs to do now; reading contains newsletters and articles to peruse during downtime; and waiting/pending holds important information about upcoming projects.

Use tech tools

There are numerous email management programs and add-ons that can make sorting and other email tasks easier. One option is Boomerang for Gmail, which lets you tell an email to go away and come back to you on a more apt date, like closer to or on the deadline.

Shorten your notes

People digest information best in short chunks, says O’Connor. She maintains that the ideal email length should be between 120 and 170 words. Consider the emerging three– or five-sentence rule for emails. O’Connor says you can write longer, but using bullet points will help you communicate more effectively.

Go notification-free

When an email buzzes, dings or sends you a note onscreen, you can’t help but stop and click, losing your train of thought. Set your notifications for the least invasive alert possible – ideally, nothing at all. If you can’t go there, set your program to automatically pick up mail every half-hour or hour.

Batch check

Consider checking your email just three times a day, says O’Connor. It’s not for everyone, but it can work wonders for some. She once got an entire office of about 40 people doing it and, she says, “some thrived and some did not.” Upper managers tend to love it. Those in sales and marketing, not so much. O’Connor says about half the people she comes across like this technique.

Set rules

Among your work colleagues and family members, establish some basic etiquette. What is the expected response time? When should you send emails versus texts? (Texting is not great for work colleagues as it really puts time pressure on, says O’Connor.) Do you really need to CC colleagues or Reply All? These last two are huge time-wasters, she adds. Some workplaces require users to indicate in the message why others are being looped in.

Shut down

There’s nothing worse for your personal relationships than a smartphone at the dinner table, buzzing every few minutes. Try to keep family and leisure time as device-free as possible. Sometimes, you can’t really shut down until you shut your email down.

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