t’s my second week back in the office this year, and my inbox is only just under control. There’s 1,840 unread messages currently waiting in my inbox, half of which will probably never get read, and another third that will take at least a month to reply to.
I’m not alone – more and more of us receive too many emails, and the stress of finding time to reply to them is a common issue. The internet keeps us tied to our smartphones, so responding to emails is a 24/7 task, with workers even resorting to setting out of offices when they go home each evening to give them some peace of mind. The French have gone one step further, and launched a new law establishing workers’ “right to disconnect”.
Replying to emails is stressful, time-consuming, and often unnecessary. So what can you do if, like me, you are genuinely reaching inbox overload?
One tip is to organise your emails into sections: unnecessary emails, non-urgent emails, and urgent emails. “Limit yourself to 30 minutes of sorting. Delete anything unnecessary and file anything non-urgent to work projects in a separate folder to read later. Focus on emails from key clients or colleagues first,” says Jessica Chivers, director of The Talent Keeper Specialists and workplace self-help author.
But there’s not always a one-size-fits-all approach to managing your inbox. Tracey Eker, chief executive of Flexiforce, recommends reading every single email before replying to any of them. “I would recommend scrolling all the way back to the oldest email in the queue, and reading every single email before you reply to any of them.” The idea behind this is that you get a true picture of what’s going on because you decide what you need to do. “Once you’ve read them all you can then list which are a top priority to be dealt with and which can wait until you have a bit more time,” she adds.
Eker says it’s best to get any difficult emails out of the way first. “There’s nothing worse than having a difficult conversation hanging over you. Even if replying makes you want to hide under your desk after pressing send, I say just do it and get on with the rest of your day organised and guilt-free.”
Another piece of advice is not to put too much pressure on yourself. “Try to be realistic about what’s doable on your first week back,” says Richard MacKinnon, insight director for the Future Work Centre. And if you find yourself continually distracted by email notifications, switch them off for various periods of time so you can concentrate on other tasks. “Remember that you’re just one of millions of employees returning to work with the same thing on their mind. Give each other a break.” adds MacKinnon.
Stress over replying to emails may also be due to a lack of self-control. While you may feel that you need to check them constantly, it’s far more likely that scheduling in strict timeframes to reply to emails will make you more productive. “It’s symptomatic of a larger issue – where we feel compelled to check something constantly that does not need to be checked. Looking at emails no more than twice a day can prove helpful. Often the less frequently we check email, the less overwhelmed we’ll feel by it,” says counsellor and self-help author Tim Grimes.
Psychologist Dr Gary Wood agrees that once you have control of your mind, managing your inbox will become easier. “Working through the messages in a methodical way will get you through them quicker than being in a blind panic. And remember you always have the excuse of a post-holiday inbox to fall back on.”
Essentially, it’s about finding what works for you. But we can all schedule some down-time, switch off our email notifications, and tackle as many emails as we can in the time we have. We all need to take a leaf out of France’s book, and realise our “right to disconnect”.