email overload

“I’m addicted to e-mail. My endorphins spike when I get a message. And when there are no messages, loneliness and despair overcome me.”

Does that comic strip quip feel familiar? Many of us have a love/hate relationship with e-mail. It’s a great tool for staying in touch with many people. But it can easily take over our life and slash our effectiveness.

Answering e-mails can feel “productive.” But busyness is often a barrier to effectiveness. As Ellen McGirt wrote in her Fortune article, “Getting out from under.” “…Someone who is responsive looks effective. Constant e-mails and phone calls bring a sense of urgency and importance that’s tough to resist, not to mention the thrill of instant accomplishment. It feels like working. But unless it’s your job to be interrupted…the work is working you.”

A recent study found that 30% of Americans are so overwhelmed they’ve declared “e-mail bankruptcy.” A survey by e-mail productivity company, Gated, found “82% of people say e-mail is their primary means of communication at work, 74% feel guilt or stress over e-mails they haven’t read or replied to, and 67% of people feel overwhelmed by their inbox.”

Who’s to Blame for the E-mail Mess?

Psychiatrist, and former Harvard professor, Edward Hallowell, founder of The Hallowell ADHD Centers, said, “I don’t blame technology. I blame the way we use it. You need a system to confront what I call screen-sucking — literally being constantly drawn to a new hit of information… you don’t have to answer every e-mail the minute you get it. And there is no reason that you have to deal immediately with every interruption that comes up…. People don’t realize how much they’ve given up control and allowed their boundaries to be much too permeable.”

Screen-sucking drains energy and crams our days with urgent but less important tasks. We’re trivia buffs playing in the sand. E-mailing isn’t leading. It’s an efficient information management tool. It’s a horrible communication tool. E-mail rarely persuades, coaches, fosters meaningful conversations, resolves conflict, or inspires performance. Managers confusing the two is why most organizations are drowning in information while thirsting for communication.

E-mail Pet Peeves

In the “Taming the E-mail Beast” section of our workshops, we start by asking about e-mail pet peeves. It’s often a long list. Here are the most popular gripes:

  • “CC-ing the World” — far too many people are copied on far too many messages that are either of remote or some interest or a classic case of CYA (cover your…butt).
  • Teching Instead of Talking — difficult news or tough feedback is cowardly delivered through this impersonal channel. Gutlessly laying off or firing by e-mail, for example.
  • Flaming E-mails — insensitive, inflammatory, or negative comments are fired off with an aggressive or hostile tone that wouldn’t be used in a personal conversation — like some mild-mannered people who become aggressive drivers behind the wheels of their big SUVs/pickup trucks.
  • Over-Reliance on One Message/Channel — important decisions, “discussions,” or directions are fired out, and everyone is expected to give this one e-mail the immediate attention and urgency the sender feels it needs.
  • Stringing the Pieces Together — recipients are expected to follow a long and convoluted e-mail chain in reverse chronological order.

Like a B-movie, The E-mail Beast keeps growing larger and consuming more time and resources (“E-zilla: The Insatiable Beast”). Imagine a sci-fi movie with superheroes battling a creature from deep cyberspace created by all those lost emails…

Personal E-mail Strategies

Most people complain about hours of their days being sucked into the e-mail vortex. It doesn’t have to be. Research shows that highly effective people aren’t managed by their inbox and use e-mail much more effectively than their team members or organizational peers.

The E-mail Beast can be a time-sucking vampire drawing the life out of our day and taking us away from more vital work.

Are you drowning in e-mail? Take our quickie quiz to review and reflect on your e-mail habits.

Are you an e-mail leader, follower, or wallower? How can you act like a leader and regain control of your e-mail? Click E-mail Tips for Leaders to view a short video clip of me providing a few quick tips.

Ways to Strengthen Your E-mail Culture

Meetings are much more effective when participants set ground rules and agree on the behaviors that boost or block effectiveness. The same approach substantially increases internal e-mail effectiveness.

One approach is to get your team together to agree on:

  • When to use e-mail
  • When not to use e-mail
  • Worst e-mail practices
  • Keys to effective e-mails

That approach is often part of, or leads to, these tips and techniques to tame The E-Mail Beast:

  • Get an idea of how much time everyone is currently spending each day on internal versus external e-mails.
  • Have everyone do an analysis of their inbox for the next few weeks and categorize the e-mails by type, importance, relevance, etc. Aggregate those individual logs to see the overall trends.
  • Agree on the criteria for when e-mails are not appropriate. This might include whenever an issue is sensitive or difficult, has potential for conflict or misunderstanding, needs discussion, calls for collective brainstorming, personal feedback, etc.
  • Agree on the criteria for categorizing e-mails by level of urgency, information only, decision needed, who should be copied, etc.
  • Connect e-mail practices and protocols to meeting effectiveness. They’re intertwined time wasters or key tools in boosting team effectiveness.
  • Periodically review your team’s e-mail usage by asking everyone what you all should keep doing, stop doing, and start doing to ensure e-mail is an enabling, rather than enslaving, tool.

Are you letting Godzilla the E-mail Beast cut a destructive path through your life? Is e-mail crowding your time for leadership and life effectiveness? Do you need a better balance of technology and communication?

Helpful Resources