Sunday, 27 May 2012

The myth of e-mail overload

As a recent convert to the cult of GTD (all praise the Good Book: my inbox has been emptied daily for three weeks, amen) I was interested to pick up my employer's internal propaganda rag and see an article on e-mail overload. The thrust of the article was that e-mail overload is caused by thoughtless senders recklessly CCing and replying to all, damn their eyes.

Thinking about this in the light of my recent experience with GTD I came to the conclusion that the article was exactly wrong. E-mail overload isn't a problem of sender behaviour, it is a problem of recipient behaviour, specifically with recipients mismanaging their focus.

And what led me to conclude this? Humility is endless. I was edging into e-mail overload, and a few simple GTD-related changes of behaviour have convinced me that I wasn't being drowned in crap by idiots, but that instead I was the idiot, drowning myself in crap.

So what did I start to do differently? Here is list, largely for myself, should I start backsliding.

1 Turn off all e-mail notifications and don't leave your inbox open

E-mail is not instant messaging. Better off thinking of it as a electronic memo system. Would you allow the office posty to walk up to at your desk or wherever, force a paper memo into your hand and say 'hey, it's from Bob, he says thanks!' or 'HR have restructured!' Would you let the posty do that ten seconds after every single memo was posted?

No? Then why do you allow the e-mail delivery system to do that? Is every e-mail really so important that you need to drop what you are doing to focus on it, even for a few seconds? If not, why don't you disable all e-mail notification?

And why not close your inbox while you are at it? That way you can focus on what you are doing, which is probably more important. Make your default Outlook view your calendar or task list, something that'll help you concentrate on the work ahead.

2 Don't read mail in delivery order

Reading e-mail in the order it arrived gives it a false sense of urgency. Look this happened! Then this happened! Wow! Also, it makes you dance from one topic to another and lose focus.

Instead, order by subject and within each subject read the latest first. You probably didn't need a blow-by-blow account of something that's already been sorted out. Also, it makes it easier to delete entire threads.

3 Deal with all your e-mail in one go

This is a real GTD thing and something that is only really made possible if you do what David tells you to. Delete, do in less than two minutes, delegate or defer. If you are doing e-mail, then focus on doing e-mail: chew through the lot, starting at the top. Don't get sucked in to other activities.

This is made easier if you move the entire contents of your inbox into a processing folder first. Incoming e-mail is a distraction, and seeing something arrive gives it a false sense of urgency. Also, it is pretty demoralising to see stuff coming in faster that you can deal with it. Just move it all out of your inbox, and leave any new stuff for the next round of processing.

4 Empty your inbox

Another real GTD thing. Never leave stuff in your inbox for later. Decide what action each e-mail entails, then delete, do in less that two minutes, delegate or defer. Deal with it once, otherwise you are duplicating effort. All the stuff that needs to be deferred should be put into an action list or filed.

There is nothing like an empty inbox to beat feelings of e-mail overload.


  1. A touch late to the party with this, but I can't believe this post has no comments. I have come back to it time and time again over the past few years to remind myself how to do things right. It's a great, simple and well-written article that is a good step on the path to better focus and productivity all round. I recommend it frequently to colleagues who complain about email interrupts.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Steven! Made my day :-)