A Toolbox for Managing Email Overwhelm at Work

The problem presented by too many emails and too little time to reply is not new. But much of the advice about how to manage this challenge is unrealistic. Here are three strategy considerations for those of us who continue to receive far too many emails.
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Frustrated businessman with head in hands at desk
Frustrated businessman with head in hands at desk

The problem presented by too many emails and too little time to reply is not new. But much of the advice about how to manage this challenge is unrealistic. One common piece of advice is to restrict email activity to just once or twice during the workday. That may be achievable for some individuals, but many of our businesses and jobs require our being present on email much more often than that -- often throughout the workday and even off-hours.

A related challenge is that a strictly delimited amount of time allotted to email activity may not be sufficient to answer all of the messages. For many of us, it can also be quite stressful and overwhelming to allow an enormous number of messages to accumulate over a long stretch of work hours and then try to deal with them all at once. I can feel my heart begin to race when my inbox has just 10 or so unanswered messages. Deep breathing and other mindfulness techniques at that point are inadequate to resolve the problem at hand.

One partially helpful strategy for some individuals may be to inform colleagues proactively that you generally don't respond to emails immediately, but will get to them as soon as possible in light of other major demands on your time. While that strategy may help to shape and limit the expectations of the sender of the email, it is unlikely to diminish sufficiently the number of emails you receive over the course of a workday.

Here are three additional strategy considerations for those of us who continue to receive far too many emails:

1. The quick and brief response

This fairly immediate reply runs something like "I've received your message and look forward to addressing the important issues you raise as soon as possible." The potential benefit of this kind of response is that it acknowledges that you genuinely care about the message and the person who sent it. At the same time, it gives you some breathing room by delaying the discussion to a more appropriate time. It also shapes the sender's future expectations by conveying that you don't necessarily reply in full to such messages immediately. It can also convey the positive message that you want to deliberate carefully about the sender's inquiry. There is some risk here that the sender will feel "blown off" if the content and tone of the message doesn't communicate seriousness and respect, so it's worth taking an extra minute or two to consider how you would feel to receive the reply that you're about to send.

2. The delayed response

In some cases, simply waiting a while to reply can dissolve the urgency of the sender's message. By delaying, you may give the sender a much-needed opportunity to resolve problems on his or her own. Once again, you also foster the understanding that you don't necessarily reply to all emails immediately. Following the delay, you might reply with a comment like "I hope this issue has resolved" or "please give me a status update and I'll let you know what I think". Oftentimes, the sender will thank you for following up and inform you that the issue has resolved. One of my executive coaching clients used this strategy to great effect. By inhibiting his tendency to respond impulsively to an urgent email request, his colleague found the time and wherewithal to develop her own novel solution. The colleague later commented that she was initially anxious about not receiving the usual reply, but observed that she developed more self-confidence by devising her own solution.

3. No response at all

This strategy may not be suitable very often, but most of my clients and I actually underutilize it. When used carefully and deliberately, no reply is a very powerful reply. It can convey that you've already answered the question and that the sender should return to reading your previous messages. It can also convey that the issue raised should not be a high priority item for either one of you. When you later see the sender over the coming hours or days, you can say that you hadn't replied because you were focused on other tasks, or you were still considering the information or questions they had sent (and wanted to weigh in on them carefully). It is essential to be truthful, of course. There may be situations where you later say nothing about the lack of a reply, or you bluntly (yet respectfully) say that you didn't consider a reply from you to be necessary or appropriate.

One caveat with all three of these approaches is that the sender may try to contact you in other ways, such as by text message. I've often received texts like "I just sent you an email, let me know your thoughts about it." When the text comes with a smiley-faced emoticon, it may be particularly difficult or guilt inducing to restrain yourself from replying. Since most people who send text messages expect a nearly immediate response, strategy 1 described above (the quick, brief response) may be particularly relevant and useful here. In carefully chosen situations, the other two strategies for emails may apply in the text message scenario as well.

None of the strategies described here, of course, will work across the board and they should never be applied in a knee jerk manner. They are items in your toolbox that are potentially helpful to widen your repertoire of email behavior. By utilizing some or all of them in appropriate situations and always with thoughtful consideration, you may come to feel much more in control of your workday. You may also feel less passive and less victimized by the stressful, brutal reality of an inbox gone haywire. You may continue to be on your email throughout the day, but you'll now be better equipped to minimize the stress, serve your colleagues and customers effectively, and have more time to accomplish your highest goals for your job and career.

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