by: Alexandra Samuel
In our ongoing preoccupation with digital overload, nothing comes in for more hatred than email. Colleagues compare email triage strategies with the fervor they once reserved for their local sports franchise, and an entire industry has sprung up to tackle email pain by offering solutions at both the personal and organizational level.
But no one solution is likely to cure your email woes, because email angst isn’t just one problem: it’s several. It’s the problem of how to cope with the volume of incoming messages, compounded by our fear of missing out on something and by our anxiety about staying in the loop. Writing and replying to messages incorporates our insecurities about written communication and any fears of miscommunication. And perhaps most of all, it’s the problem of how to balance work and personal time, which is bound up with our desire to be both a great professional and a great parent/partner/friend/human.
Precisely because our email struggles encompass so many different professional and personal areas, we need a range of strategies – rather than a single tool – to address them. Inbox strategies can help reduce the volume of messages that land in our inbox, but don’t address the pain of outbound messages. Triage strategies can speed up the way you handle both inbound and outbound email, but don’t touch the problem of overall volume. Boxing strategies can prevent email from taking over the entirety of your work day (or personal time), but will only be viable and effective if you’re managing email efficiently by using other strategies, too.
That’s why it’s crucial to adopt a mix of strategies – and to choose those that reflect your particular email challenges and style. Here are the strategies you need to consider:
Inbox diversion strategies helps us reduce the volume of messages by making use of tools that are better than email for certain types of communication. Sharing Google Docs instead of emailing documents, using Doodle polls to find meeting times and using alternative team communication platforms like Slack are all examples of shifting communication away from email and onto platforms that are optimized for specific kinds of business needs. These strategies may reduce the overall volume of email, and may lead to more efficient communication, but often we’re just moving a similar volume of communication onto another platform.
Inbox prioritization strategies focus on diverting or filtering incoming messages based on how important they are. Tools like email filters, email management systems (like Other Inbox and Sanebox), spam filters, and simple unsubscribe links are all tools that support the prioritization of our most important messages. These strategies are great for people who struggle with the volume of incoming messages, though they don’t necessarily help us address expectations around how many email messages we need to send, or how quickly we need to reply. (Making smart use of email rules and filters is a key part of my new book, Work Smarter with Social Media, and the book can also help you get up to speed with some of the collaboration tools that can support inbox diversion strategies.)
Personal triage strategies accelerate the process of triaging and addressing email by setting up guidelines and tools for handling your messages. Inbox Zero – the practice of completely emptying your inbox every single day – is one processing strategy; another is to convert emails to tasks, and put those tasks into a task manager. Triage strategies can be a helpful part of an email system, because routinizing the way you handle email makes it faster to plow through, but they still require you to invest actual time in each message that hits your inbox.
Assisted triage strategies recruit others to the challenge of conquering your inbox, either implicitly or explicitly. They work well when they’re explicit and transparent, like asking an assistant to review your inbox and flag the messages you need to see personally (and letting your regular correspondents know their messages aren’t entirely private). The more common and frequently dysfunctional version is to carelessly CC or forward messages to other people to handle; unless you’ve got a prior agreement with your colleagues, that’s a recipe for alienating them.
Time boxing strategies are driven by the incursion of work-related email into our personal time, but can help manage email during the workday, too. They include organizational rules or technologies that limit email to specific hours, and personal practices like setting aside a specific chunk of time each day for email. Time boxing strategies can be great for your mental health and focus (or for that of your employees and team) but unless they are accompanied by strategies that address the overall volume and length of messages, they may lead to just more stress and frustration.
Device boxing strategies try to limit email hegemony by keeping email off of specific devices, or limiting your ability to interact with it. Using a separate weekend phone with no email support is one example of device boxing; notably, Apple has delivered this kind of strategy with its watch, which allows you to view but not reply to email messages. These strategies can help address compulsive or habitual email use, so they can help with the subjective pain of email – even if the overall volume or demands of email remain constant.
For most people, healing the pain of email will involve using at least one inbox strategy, one triage strategy, and one boxing strategy. When choosing, consider how well each strategy fits with your own personal style, and with your organizational culture and position: while many of us would love to have an assisted triage strategy, not all of us have assistants. And while on-demand services like Zirtual have made it easier to get help managing your email, most employers have policies that specify who can have access to your inbox.
Once you’ve assessed which strategies are both feasible and appealing, build up your system one layer at a time, beginning with the strategy that speaks to your greatest pain point. If it’s the sheer volume of incoming mail, start with your inbox. If it’s the incursion of email into your personal time, start with a boxing strategy.
As you create your multi-pronged email system, be prepared for pushback from people who are indignant that their messages didn’t receive a reply, or that your answer was so brief. Because sending a message is both free and near-effortless, it’s easy for us to use email to foist our demands and priorities on other people. But adopting a mix of email strategies is about reclaiming email as your own: your own priorities, your own demands and your own inbox.
About the Author
Alexandra Samuel is an expert in online engagement and the author of Work Smarter with Social Media (Harvard Business Review Press, May 2015). She previously led social media R&D for the customer intelligence leader Vision Critical (which has worked with some of the companies mentioned in this article).
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