Taming the Email Tiger With a Whip, a Chair, and a Delete Key


For office workers, and even those that spend less time in an office setting, email can be a blessing and a curse. In the last few years, it seems more of a curse. A research study by McKinsey and Co. found that office employees spend an average of 28% of their work week reading and writing emails; that’s a staggering statistic. As much as I dislike paying taxes, I’ve often wondered if we wouldn’t all be better off if there were a one cent tax on every email sent. SPAM promotional emails would be far less profitable and that poor prince from Nigeria that just needs help with his money transfer might consider other means of communicating his predicament.

DeleteTaming the email tiger is a seemingly insurmountable task but I’ve discovered a few simple principles over the years that can help keep that digital feline off the furniture. Hopefully these will help a few of those taking the time to read this article.

As the hyperbolic title advertises, one of the keys to email nirvana is the DELETE key. Many of us are prone to be packrats at home. With email, the lure of “packrating” is even greater as there appears to be no apparent cost; available space is near infinite. While the space argument is largely true, the cost, in terms of productivity and wasted time is far from zero. Principle number 1: Delete an email after you reply unless you are highly confident that you will need it again. It’s easy to feel an email message has been processed once you read it and replied, if one is required, but most people fail to delete it.

The chart below shows a theoretical inbox where you begin with 300 messages, receive 150 messages per day, and only delete 20% of the new messages. Within 20 days, there are roughly 2600 emails in the inbox and by day 40 there are almost 5000. Now consider how much time it might take to find an important message within that inbox.

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You may be asking “What’s the harm in keeping piles of emails in my inbox anyway?” Let me answer with a hypothetical situation. Most people have a pantry where food is stored. In that pantry are shelves of various heights. Soup goes on one shelf, pasta on another, bread and crackers on still another shelf. Think about what’s probably in your pantry right now. Now, imagine if your pantry were a single room with no shelves and all of those food packages were just thrown in their randomly, not stacked in any meaningful order, just a pile. It’s time for dinner now. What are you going to cook? Exactly. It’s total chaos.

Now back to your emails. Even though you do catch some important emails in a timely fashion, when there are interruptions, which are constant in almost every profession, something important sneaks through and joins the pile in your email pantry. Then you’re forced to sift through the pile to find it. A study from Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute found that physical clutter at a work space reduces the ability of employees to focus and increase stress. Your digital work space is similar. The ability to search in your inbox is great but unless you know exactly what to search for you will likely get many results that will then require you to look more closely before finding what you need. In the chart above, with 5000 messages in the inbox, a search for the name of one of your customers or a work order is unlikely to return only a single result.

The 30 second rule. This is part “B” of the delete rule. If you can’t decide after 30 seconds whether or not to keep a message, delete it. If it were truly important, you wouldn’t be indecisive. This takes some practice but after trying it for a week your ability to eliminate unneeded messages will improve. Resist your inner packrat.

Principle #2: When in doubt, file it. Within your inbox, you can add other folders. These could be titled with the names of employees, departments, projects, or whatever best suits your workflow. Choose a title that is meaningful to you and if you must save an email message, move it to one of these folders.

Principle #3: Handle email a few times per day. Greg Vetter, a productivity consultant and author, suggests setting aside two or three times per day for “processing” incoming information. For email, this might mean handling emails once in the morning, again right after lunch, and once more at the end of the day. If possible, shut down your email program when it’s not needed to avoid the temptation to check for messages. Turn off the alert feature that pops up when a new message comes in. Remember: if you have a plan for handling emails you don’t need that reminder.

Furthermore, constant interruptions kill productivity. Research from the human resources website gethppy.com notes that it takes an employee an average of 64 seconds to return to their prior task after checking email, other research suggests much longer. That 64 seconds doesn’t sound likemuch but if you check email five times per hour during an 8-hour day, that’s roughly 40 minutes per day and over 3 hours per week that could be used more productively. In the last few years, a number of companies have tested policies that allow email handling during only certain times of day. The new policies have resulted in better productivity and lower stress reported by employees.

Principle #4: Clean house but not just in the spring. Set a reminder for every 2-3 months to clean out your extra folders in your inbox. Review your email folders and delete old messages or entire folders no longer needed. If a project is complete and you know you won’t need the messages any longer, delete it. Sorting messages by title or author can make this process more efficient as you’ll often understand the reason for the message without having to read it, making deleting large numbers of messages much faster.

One final suggestion: Track your requests. If you send an important email to someone that requires a response, you may want to keep track of it. Otherwise, how will you know the request is not yet completed? Create another folder in your inbox called “_Pending”. The underscore character in the title will keep the folder at the top of the list when sorted alphabetically. Now go to the “sent” folder in your email program and move a copy of the important message to the “_Pending” folder. Checking that pending folder daily only takes a minute but it will help you stay on top of information you need to receive from others that is still outstanding. Better not to wait until the day of the big meeting to find out your flight was never booked.

In many ways, email saves us a significant amount of time but if not handled correctly, all of that time savings and more is wasted. Very few of us are compensated based on the amount of time we spent with email each day. Adopting a few new tools for your digital toolbox like the ones outlined here will hopefully lower your stress and boost productivity. Now get out there and delete something!