Help! I'm drowning in a sea of email!

I’m snowed under. I’m awash. I’m overwhelmed. By email. Lots and lots of email.

istock_000002649953xsmallHow bad is it? I’m on a trip to Australia. Away from the office. And today, I logged over 5 and 1/2 hours reading and responding to the emails I received since yesterday. That leaves precious little time to actually do the work that’s important to me.

I’ve put practices in place to try to deal with my emails more efficiently and keep the important ahead of the urgent. I try to touch each email only once, deciding on first reading if I need to respond or if I can delegate any necessary action. I quickly delete emails that have been sent simply to me to “keep me in the loop.”

But what remains takes too much time.

And as I ask myself why, I think I’ve seen a pattern. The emails that take most of the time are those that ask my opinion. In many respects, it’s the emails that are asking “what should we do?” or “what is your opinion?”

Now, if this were a face to face encounter, I would respond by asking the questioner what he or she thinks we should do. The smart, competent people will always supply an answer that I can quickly agree with or that we can refine together.

But I find it tougher to respond to an email in this way. It seems rude. Worse, it also delays a decision and can turn into the dreaded email ping pong exchange. So, I invest my time to think through the question – and then I write a considered response. And that can take a lot of time. Over five hours today alone.

But I simply can’t keep going this way. I have to get my head up above this email tsunami.

But how?

What do you do to keep email at a manageable level? Can you do this and still do your job if as a manager? How can you do it without offending people? Is there no other way than to step back into another century and hire an assistant to divert most of the flow?

Can you throw a guy a lifeline? What can I do to get my head above the email flood?

  • Paul Parkinson

    THere’s a short answer to this and a much much longer one. You are trying to do the longer one – that is, trying to keep on top of it.

    The shorter one is to set up an auto responder which says you’re away and if the email is important to please resend after . Then you should declare email bankruptcy and delete everything. Just delete it. Select All. Delete. Problem solved. Mischief managed.


    • Paul, Good advice for my vacation time. In fact, I did delete the 700+ emails that were sitting in my Gmail account. They were above and beyond the work email. And there was just no way I would ever get to them.

      Having said that, the flow is not just during my vacation. It’s unrelenting. Every workday. So, I’m searching for an approach that will enable me to reduce my email management time to about 1 hour per day, every day. Any ideas about a longer term fix?

  • Joe Joe Joe…I started wilderness camping when my boss (a police service) wanted to know how to reach me on vacation. Also train people to think for themselves. When I was the group editor of a bunch of national magazines I told my #2 that they were in charge and when I got back I’d back everything they did 100% (short of shooting the publisher – a distinct possibility) and son of gun if they didn’t do a great job. Also you shouldn’t be reading this on vacation – period

    • You’re very right Peter. The people I work with tell me every day that the only way I’ll get out from under the load is to step back and trust them to deal with things. They tell me that is not me abdicating my responsibilities, but rather it’s me trusting them. And if I do that, less will flow my way. This is a good reminder that I have to keep working on this.

  • One of my favorite books is “Getting Things Done”, by David Allen. Joe, I suspect that’s probably where you learned about the “touching emails only once” idea. Recently, I’ve started reading both Lifehacker and Zen Habits, which I find have a lot of useful advice for personal organization.

    There is definitely something to be said for keeping the inbox clear, if only a personal sense of accomplishment. Best of luck!

  • My personal strategies…

    When at work but overwhelmed:
    * Delegate, delegate, delegate – with short instructions. “x, please help y with this. I think what we did with project z can be helpful.”
    * Give a 2-line answer right away and indicate when I’ll be able to talk about it – 8 times out of 10 they’ll answer they figured it out before we get to meet.

    When on vacation:
    * Give only 2-line answers, usually saying ‘talk to x, he went through this before’. You Tweet, you should be good at this!
    * Those requiring a longer and urgent response, ignore. By the time I’ll be able to give a proper answer, it will be too late anyway.
    * Those requiring a longer response but are not urgent, wait until I get back to the office for a face-to-face or phone conversation.

  • Good advice from the commenters above! I don’t always know what to do with the “what’s your opinion?” emails. If they’re from clients or from colleagues, I will answer. But too many come from acquaintances or strangers, asking questions about social media or podcasting that could take HOURS to answer. They may not like it, but I often suggest a particular book, blog or Web site as a resource, then say that I wish I had time for a detailed answer, but I don’t.

  • I understand whole heartedly. Email can be very overwhelming and it is easy to get behind in checking them on a regular basis. For some email is a way that they communicate with family and friends on a regular basis. As a means to keep in touch and stay informed people will continue this way of communication. I like this method okay, I just hate the false advertisements and junk mail. Besides that I guess if I cleaned my mail box out on a regular basis then It would be so bad and stressful when it does get backed up.