3 Easy Ways to Reduce Email Overload

This post is Part 1 in our “How to communicate like a pro” series about how to use communication tools most efficiently at work.


Finally, Inbox: ZERO!

It was the fifth time I’d seen such a comment on my Facebook wall that week. The level of excitement was palpable, rivaled only by the news of engagements, pregnancies and conversions to veganism.

Of course, it seemed silly… But was it?

Besides providing our routinely obsessive minds with a false sense of control, in a world where butter can be a villain one day and a hero the next, maintaining an orderly inbox does serve an important purpose. It’s beautifully blank status reassures us that we’ve followed up with everyone and that they have the information to get the job done. Now we can relax.

But, thanks to the 121 emails the average office worker now sends and receives on a daily basis, according to market researcher Radicati Group, even the most conscientious person can sometimes wonder if something has slipped through the cracks. By the way, that amounts to 108.7 billion emails a year!

Developers and bloggers alike have caught onto the “Inbox Zero” phenomenon, offering everything from digital sorting apps like Mailbox to manifestos of encouragement. Commonly referenced tips for reaching inbox nirvana include using filters, systematizing emails into folders, checking email at strictly designated times, and ruthlessly sorting email into immediate, delayed and delete response categories.

Which all beg the question: Why do we need so many #@$% emails to get the job done?!

After tracking the email patterns of International Power, a London-based power company, a team of research scientists identified 80 percent of the company’s email traffic as “waste,” as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Researchers concluded that, in most cases, a phone call or face-to-face discussion would have better supported the communication goal at hand.

They also identified two primary qualifications for using email effectively: Cross-time-zone communication or the formulation or answering of a well-defined question. Here are some examples:

  • I’m available to meet Monday at 2pm or 4pm CST. Would either of those times (or something similar) work for you?
  • The 2nd floor bathrooms will be closed for maintenance this Friday afternoon. Please use the 3rd floor bathrooms in the interim.
  • I have a new marketing idea I’d like to give a presentation for at our next team meeting. It’s about (insert idea). It should take about 15 minutes. What do you think?

Outside of these instances?

There’s no reason to be using email – really! For the remainder of this post (Part 1 of our series “How to communicate like a pro”) we’ll be exploring how to reduce email overload and communicate most efficiently when you must use email. In doing so you’ll set a better example for your co-workers, which will help you all get to Inbox Zero much faster! Then we’ll look at three alternative (and more efficient) communication channels for some common work situations. Full disclosure: We’re not announcing anything as revolutionary as human teleportation. Sorry! Moving on…

Let’s assume you’ve determined email is the best choice right now for communicating with your co-worker. Though it may seem obvious, it’s worth mentioning: It behooves you to articulate exactly what you want to know and are attempting to convey. Put the following email writing tips into practice and you’ll find you and your co-workers wasting less time on extraneous email chains:

1. Take advantage of the subject line

It’s the first thing you notice when you open your inbox, email overload. Numerous “bolded” subject lines begging for your attention. Your eyes quickly scroll the page. Some immediately catch your attention, while others fade into the background. Why?

Subject lines are to emails as headlines are to advertisements. They help our brains process, categorize and identify with information. Translation: If you want a quick response from a busy person, write a great subject line! Not everyone is as diligent as you are when it comes to reading their emails. By “marketing” yours, you’ll ensure it gets read and responded to in a timely fashion.

Effective subject lines are clear, concise and abundant in “key words.” They should either reference what the email is about or incite immense curiosity. Say you’re a graphic designer who finds a beautifully designed website you’d like to share with your boss. You could save space and time by titling your subject line: “Hey, what do you think of this?”

The body could then say – “New website design style; might work well for your client” – with the link below it. And that’s it!

2. Keep it brief

Would you ever want to read Moby Dick in its entirety on your phone? No? Didn’t think so! As reported by Entrepreneur.com, 47 percent of email is now opened on mobile devices.

Though it may be convenient, studies show smartphone reading can put enormous strain on our eyes. According to research published in The Journal of the American Academy of Optometry, most people hold smartphones much closer to their faces than they would a book or newspaper, causing our eyes to work harder.

With this in mind, try to limit emails to around 150 words. Anything more than that and the topic may be deserving of a quick video conference.

3. Check for clarity

Obviously, writing grammatically correct emails greatly reduces your chance of communication mishaps, but why not take it a step further? Create a quick clarity checklist you can mentally run through before firing off emails. In doing so, you’ll be more likely to get your point across – the first time!

Here are some questions to ask yourself before writing that email:

  • Am I wanting information, providing information or both?
  • What details does this person need to answer my questions?
  • Have I clearly answered all questions posed to me?
  • Does this meet either of my two email correspondence criteria: Cross-time-zone communication or the answering of a well-defined question?
  • Would this information be more easily conveyed using synchronistic communication (i.e. video conference or chat)?

Though these tips for reducing email overload are far from rocket science, actually implementing them could very well give you back a reality television show’s worth of time each day. And that’s at least as important as what Kim Kardashian ate for breakfast.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our “How to communicate like a pro” series to learn how and when to use other communication tools that are quickly replacing email in the workplace.