Tue | Oct 17, 2017

Francis Wade | Overfull inbox means low productivity, not high popularity

Published:Sunday | July 2, 2017 | 12:00 AM

How many items of email do you have sitting in your inbox?

Are there 20 messages? Or 20,000? And what difference does it make?

Perhaps you are already suspicious of others who oversee a permanent pile of unprocessed email. Remember that recent message you sent them? They don't remember seeing it. It annoys you because it included a critical question.

Now, you stand next to them, forced to repeat the request in person while they complain about people who send them too much stuff.

In their minds they are too popular, or too important. To them, it's not their fault. They cannot be expected to get back to all the people who ask for an answer.

If you suspect that something else is afoot, you aren't crazy. Their inability to reply to your message reveals a lack of productivity. The other explanations are excuses.

The fact is most people dislike email management with good cause. It takes up to 20 per cent of the average employee's work day, partly because the techniques they use are self-taught. Their lack of sophistication is more than a curiosity it's a drag on your organisation.

How do you make sure you don't become just like them? Start by understanding the problems an unsorted email inbox causes you and others.

 

CONFUSION THAT PARALYSES

 

If you fail to completely empty your inbox for several weeks, or even years, the messages held within fall into three categories.

First, usually, there are some messages you have not read at all. They contain demands on your time, including emergencies, requests from other people, warnings of trouble, useful information you need to use plus other potential dangers. Lurking in the shadows like duppies, they nag you all day with quiet but distracting reminders

Second, inevitably, you glance at a few messages which indicate tasks to do later. Often, you mark them as unread: a signal that you must return to attend to them. Unfortunately, this tactic makes these old messages look just like new ones, which leads to them becoming lost. Now you have a mountain of stuff you know is important, but you can't quite remember what or where it is in your stack of messages.

Third, most of the messages remaining are ones you glanced at but decided to leave until later. Why didn't you get rid of them? You didn't immediately know what to do so rather than make a decision, you took the path of least resistance and left the message right where you found it.

If you receive a tiny number of messages each day, these tactics may actually work. However, they just don't scale for the average person.

Instead, if your inbox contains more than 20 items, you are really attempting to use your memory to track too many ill-defined commitments. The end result is a mental avalanche of confusion.

 

OVERWHELMED AND DISORGANISED

 

These unprocessed messages have a cumulative effect. They make you feel as if you don't have enough time. Each one requires a few moments to reread and decide what to do next. Altogether they lead you to feel extremely busy, even overwhelmed. Each time you glance at your inbox you experience a sense of dread. It's no wonder why - according to one study, 33 per cent of people would rather clean a toilet than clear out their email inbox.

The truth would be 'I'm not really busy, just disorganised', but no one ever admits to this fact. Instead, they complain about not having 25 hours in each day.

Even here in 2017, email management is seen by some as an exotic skill which a person is either born with or not. It's accompanied by the myth that it has something do with your age. It's almost never viewed as a result of poor habits, which can be unlearnt.

This mistake leaves individuals to flounder, even as their colleagues exclude them from the best teams.

After all, they can't manage their email messages, let alone a high-priority assignment.

Companies shouldn't allow employees to ruin their professional reputations because of ineffective email habits. Instead, they should teach them best practices such as limiting their visits to their inboxes to the times of day when they can empty them completely. Studies show when everyone agrees to this habit, productivity soars.

This training should start on the first day of employment. It's the only way to prevent a mess.

Even if the implementation is clumsy at first, this approach is the only way to cope with the increased message-volume we can all expect in the future.

For the sake of your organisation, time spent processing email must be minimised by modifying employees' unproductive behaviour.

- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of "Perfect Time-Based Productivity". To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com