As Stylist's Alexandra Jones returns from holiday to a bulging inbox, she finds the best ways to steamline your email
A few weeks ago I breezed back into the office after a week away, refreshed and ready for anything. Or so I thought. I knew I’d have a backlog of emails but I wasn’t expecting the unread mail equivalent of War And Peace (731 to be exact). With looming deadlines to contend with, I spent the day manically clicking back and forth between work and emails when all I really wanted to do was delete all and head straight back to the airport.
Like most people, I spend half my life pruning an inbox large enough to deserve its own park ranger. Globally we send over 200 billion emails a day, each receiving 121 business missives, of which 90% of us will feel obligated to reply within 24 hours (although most will get a reply within just two minutes). Part of me admires these heroic response times. But a larger part fears the cost of this slavish accountability to our inboxes.
A recent study of 57,000 office workers found 90% have email access on their mobiles and a third check it over 20 times a day. It is overwhelming and intrusive. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington explains it brilliantly: “Psychologically, it’s as if the mailman is delivering every minute and you have to get up and open the door.”
And it’s not just a workplace problem. According to the 2014-2018 Email Statistics Report, rather than shimmying off the shackles of the office, 52% of us will check our emails on holiday and 26% of us will reply while abroad. So prevalent is this obsession that last year German car company Daimler furnished its 100,000 employees with an ‘out of office’ function that automatically deleted all emails received while they were on holiday.
But many of us find it impossible to ignore. As author of Overconnected: The Promise And Threat Of The Internet, Bill Davidow explains the ping of an email causes a spike in feel-good dopamine similar to that from a hit of cocaine. But it also causes a spike in stress hormone cortisol. A study by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found the mere thought of an email sitting unread in an inbox is as disruptive to your concentration as staying up all night.
So, we at Stylist are staging an intervention; we’ve compiled six rules to transform your inbox – and your email attitude.
Allocate yourself ‘email time’ and stick to it
“Checking each message as it comes is hugely inefficient,” says occupational psychologist at Kingston University, Dr Emma Russell. “If email interruptions are impacting your work, set aside 30 minutes between two and five times a day to devote to emails and stick to that routine. Turn off notifications otherwise.” After lunch and at the end of the day are the most high-traffic periods and make good natural breaks in the day.
And if you’re tempted to check-in outside your allotted times, Dewan Bayney, author of Declutter Your Inbox recommends asking yourself who you are awaiting a response from or what information you need. If the answer to these is nothing and no-one in particular, then don’t look. “Your inbox is filled with other people’s priorities,” he says. “Learn to put yours first.”
Tackle your inbox using the four ds
Make the most of your allotted 30 minutes by following these four rules. Delete unimportant emails. If you can. Do what the email is asking you to (fire off a quick reply or make a phone call) in two minutes or less. Delegate – forward emails that you know would be better actioned by someone else. And if something will take longer than two minutes? Defer it by leaving it unread or flag it and come back to it later.
Set your email boundaries
This is where sticking to your allocated emailing time becomes crucial. “Traffic is generated if the people you ping-pong messages to every day don’t know when to expect a reply, as they’re likely to chase you,” explains Dr Russell. Start by setting an out of office which tells people when their email will be read, then deal with emails at the same time each day. Within two weeks your email partners should know how you work and will be less likely to send emails outside of these times.
Respect your out of office
“None of this will work if you go against your out of office,” warns Dr Russell. “Word it carefully including an estimated reply time, so it reflects what you plan to do once you’ve read the email. If you’re going away and, like one CEO I’ve interviewed, will delete the 2,000 plus emails waiting on your return, make this clear as it will stop people sending follow-up emails.”
Streamline in seconds with filters and rules
In her book Brilliant Email, email management expert Dr Monica Seeley advises setting ‘rules’ or ‘filters’ to categorise messages before they even reach your inbox. In Outlook, just right click on a message, go to ‘rules’, then ‘create rule’. From here you can set all emails from that sender, or all emails containing similar wording to bypass your inbox and appear only in a specified folder.
The added benefit? You can then choose which folders appear on your phone or iPad. Setting a rule which sends seldom-useful marketing mails about your company’s newest training courses to a ‘training course’ folder, will mean that these no longer have your inbox buzzing at 2am.
Bayney defines unsubscribing as the most efficient way to streamline. Search for the word ‘unsubscribe’ and opt out of any email you haven’t read in the last six months. Ultimately emails won’t go away, “but as long as you use it properly,” soothes Dr Russell, “it is a perfectly functional and personable tool.” Meltdown averted.