The issue is not so much with email itself (it isn’t going away, nor should it), but more with how it is used. Email has fundamentally changed the way we communicate with each other and is an important aspect of our jobs. Yet few people receive any type of instruction on what is expected in terms of email communication, let alone any formal training on how to best manage it.


Published 6/1/2012
Chad A. Krueger, MD

Taking Control of Your Email

Tips for managing electronic communication

The first thing you do when you wake up is check email on your smart phone. When you arrive at work, you log in to your computer and start working on the emails that you received overnight and during the drive to the office. While addressing those, you stop to read incoming messages, some of which may require immediate attention. All this before you’ve eaten breakfast or started planning your day.

If this scenario sounds familiar, email may have too much control over your life.

Email was initially designed to be a form of quick, asynchronous communication—you typed a message, sent it, and when appropriate, got a response at a later date. Email was not instant, did not include a ‘cc’ to everyone in the office, and was considered more urgent than regular mail but less urgent than a phone call. It was ideal for short, task-focused messages and was quickly adopted in workplaces around the world.

However, as social networking, instant and text messaging, and smart phones evolved, email has become a different, more synchronous communication vehicle. Email “conversations” are common, recipients are held responsible for the content of any emails sent to them, and responses are often expected immediately. These changes have led to increased stress among colleagues, inefficient work practices, and, ironically, poor communication throughout organizations.

Email interruptions occur
about 11 times per hour.
Courtesy of Jupiterimages\Creatas\Thinkstock

One of the most obvious drawbacks of current email practices is the time and effort they require. Research has shown that, on average, 23 percent to 40 percent of the workday is spent managing email. Although some positions and roles may be ideally suited for this email time requirement, many are not.

The number of distractions that emails can create for employees is also problematic. The familiar “ding” or pop-up notification of an incoming message by itself is not a big problem. However, if we are already engaged in an activity and are interrupted by the incoming email, we become distracted—and this scenario is becoming more frequent with the increasing use of smart phones, resulting in a significant amount of lost productivity at work (and probably personal time at home).

Unfortunately, many of us are not even aware of how distracted we are by emails. In 2006, a study found that, although workers said they checked email only once per hour, they actually checked it every 5 minutes. According to Basex Research, workers are interrupted about 11 times per hour by emails. This high number of distractions can have a profound effect on productivity. Additionally, not even the best of us can effectively focus on more than one task at a time, and it has been suggested that the IQ of a person who is continually distracted by emails drops 10 points, the same as getting no sleep at night or smoking marijuana. As these examples show, the impact that emails can have at work is not minimal.

To help emphasize the positive aspects of emails, while minimizing the negative, consider adopting the following strategies.

Make a policy
Have a clear, well-defined policy for how you manage emails. Talk to your colleagues and co-workers to find out what they expect from you and to learn what you can expect from them. For example, if you do not want to be checking your email late at night, tell them that you would prefer a phone call for all-important matters after 6:00 p.m. If you will only be checking your email three times a day at set time points, let others know. Working out these details in advance with co-workers enables you to bring together expectations and put solutions in place for handling any potential problems that may arise.

Set a time
Set aside specific times for email viewing each day. Figure out what works best for your schedule and stick with it. Once you are done viewing your emails during that set time, close your email application and turn off phone notifications. This will enable you to focus fully on the other tasks you need to complete, and prevent you from wasting time and effort trying to complete multiple tasks at once.

Make autoreply your friend
If you are worried that people may think you are ignoring their emails or that you may miss something if you implement these suggestions, try using autoreply. You can easily set your autoreply to let everyone know that you only review emails at certain times each day or that you will be catching up on emails, but to call you if something requires your immediate attention. The possibilities are endless.

Develop a system
Take the time and effort necessary to develop a workable email management system. If you have a backlog of emails, figure out which emails you want to save, determine which ones require you to take action, and implement a system of folders to store those that you need to reference later. If you do not need an email, delete it.

Once you have a system in place, keep up with it. Don’t just skim emails as they come in; read and make a decision about them. If the email doesn’t pertain to you, delete it immediately. If the email requires a quick response, respond to it. Whatever system you develop, keep up with it in order to stay in control.

If you receive hundreds or even thousands of emails a day, consider using a trusted assistant to monitor your inbox and inform you of messages that require your attention and to remove those that don’t.

Change the culture
When emailing others, implement practices that you would like them to follow. For example, if you would prefer a call or visit rather than an email that ends with “What are your thoughts?,” drop in or phone colleagues and ask them. If you don’t like long emails, keep your emails short. If you cannot stand forwarded jokes, don’t forward them. To implement a culture of change, you can’t continue to use old habits or practices that bother you.

Trying anything new means trial and error. Managing emails is no different, so don’t expect it to be. If one idea doesn’t work, try something else.

We all have the power to change the way we communicate via email. Although it is a great tool and certainly a necessary part of today’s workplace, email does have limitations—and those limitations will shape your email management system and style.

Take a step back and try to implement some of these suggestions. You might be surprised at how well some of them work and how much stress they remove from your day. No matter what, at the end of the day remember: It’s just email.

Chad A. Krueger, MD, is a resident serving at Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas.