Managing E-Mail Overload

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
Illustration courtesy Cohesive Knowledge Solutions

Do you ever sit down to check your e-mail "for a minute," and the next thing you know, two hours have passed?

You've got company. American professionals spend over 40 percent of the workday on e-mail and information storage, and consider a third of the time wasted, according to research by Cohesive Knowledge Solutions, a Guilford, Conn., corporate training firm.

That amounts to $300 billion in lost productivity, said CKS chief executive Mike Song, co-author of "The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your E-mail Before it Manages You."

"People have reached the breaking point," Song said.

The burden on personnel and computer servers has some companies training their work forces to use e-mail more efficiently. Last year, 42 percent of companies surveyed conducted e-mail training, up from 24 percent five years earlier, according to the ePolicy Institute in Columbus, Ohio.

The results are striking. On average, one 45-minute CKS seminar saved Novartis Oncology employees eight days a year, and 75 minutes of training returned 11 days a year to the typical Capital One worker.

"Few investments in business ... have that kind of payback," said Nic Oatridge, global head of information technology for Novartis Oncology in Florham Park, N.J. "People are saying we've set them free."

Novartis relies on e-mail to connect colleagues working in different time zones around the globe. But the messages demand more and more time and distract workers from business priorities, Oatridge said.

Worldwide, e-mail volume is increasing more than 20 percent annually, with 135 billion e-mails sent each day in 2005, according to Radicati Group statistics compiled by

Employees clearly need more than checklists of good e-mail practices, Oatridge said they need coaching to recognize their own role in the problem. "One of the most powerful messages we sent people was that if they sent less messages they would probably get less messages," he said.

Song's advice:

Consider whether an e-mail is truly needed and whether it's targeted to the proper recipient or recipients. Are you hitting "reply all" or "cc:" unnecessarily? Would telephoning or walking to the person's office be more appropriate?

Write a strong subject line explaining the e-mail's purpose and what action the recipient should take. Song starts with one of these words: Action, Info, Request, Confirmed or Delivery.

You can even put the entire message in the subject line, and include EOM for end of message to signal that the e-mail can be deleted without being opened. Similarly, NRN means no reply is needed.

In the body of the message, be clear and concise. Song teaches an ABC format: Action, Background and Close.

If all this seems time-consuming, consider that someone who handles 40 e-mails a day is looking at 10,000 a year, said Matt Koch, director of human resources for Capital One Financial Services in Richmond, Va. That alone, he said, makes it worth doing well: "If I send out a bad e-mail, I'm going to get three, four, five back asking for clarification, and I've ruined my productivity."

Moreover, these days e-mail is a key part of your identity and an opportunity to present yourself as professional, efficient and a good communicator, Koch said. He finds that bullet points, rich text and lots of white space make e-mail visually appealing and easy to understand.

The power of training an entire work group or company is that employees reinforce each other's efficient e-mail techniques, said Lisa Hiott, training manager at Beiersdorf, the Wilton, Conn.-based manufacturer of Nivea and Eucerin.

"No matter whom I internally send that (CKS) format to, it can't be misinterpreted," Hiott said. "It saves time, saves money, eliminates or lessens misunderstandings."

After the CKS training, business analyst Pamela Wiggins gets rave reviews especially when she puts the whole message in the subject line.

Wiggins, who works for Verizon Business in Ashburn, Va., deals with documentation from dozens of organizations and must find information quickly. She organizes her e-mail with a folder system that CKS teaches, making her in-box manageably small.

"If I can go home and have all my e-mails visible, I know I'm on top of everything, nothing's falling through the cracks," she said. "That relieves the stress."

Indeed, a study by Volvo found that e-mail was the leading source of technology anxiety, said Matt Cain, the e-mail analyst for Gartner, a Stamford, Conn., advisory firm.

On top of the sheer volume of e-mail, he said, people don't know the rules and standards: When should I respond with a "thanks" or "I got your e-mail"? When and how should I close off a communication? Is a topic more appropriate for e-mail or voice? Will the written record come back to haunt me?

"My fear is that things are going to get worse before they get better," Cain said.

Scott Dockter realized e-mail was a problem when his senior managers would spend a long day meeting with clients and afterward return to 100 e-mails meaning two hours of late-night work in the hotel room.

"I wanted to stop bringing my Treo to the dinner table," said Dockter, chief executive of PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services in Alpharetta, Ga. "As CEO, I'm setting a terrible example for my family and the family of employees."

So in July 2006, he banned all internal e-mails on Friday, forcing employees to use the phone and in-person visits just like the old days. Soon, they relied more on these modes of communication throughout the week.

"It's also rubbed off on our partners and vendors," Dockter said. "Just talking, we can solve things much more quickly. We don't misinterpret."

The move cut Dockter's individual e-mail load by 80 percent, and the company's volume by 50 percent, and led to better relationships and communication overall. The company discovered that many e-mails were reports that could be posted on its Intranet, and that people were cc-ing colleagues and bosses just to cover themselves.

Other tips for reducing your e-mail load:

Read and respond to e-mails in batches, rather than every time a new one arrives.

Turn off the ding that signals a new e-mail.

Maximize the interval at which new e-mail downloads to your computer.

Coach your colleagues and other frequent e-mailers to communicate clearly.

Ask to be removed from mailing lists you don't find useful.

Sort incoming e-mail into folders so you can see your entire in-box and easily find saved e-mails.

Don't send confidential, personal or potentially embarrassing messages via e-mail.

Turn away from e-mail. Try not to read or answer e-mail during your personal time.

This story was originally published Thursday, January 25, 2007.