I easily used to get around 200 emails a day. That’s enough content to fill the average novel—and I’m not just expected to read it, I’m also expected to digest it and respond accordingly.
Fortunately for my productivity, I’ve come up with five email-reduction strategies that have nothing to do with rearranging your folders or setting auto-responses. They’re just changes to your usual habits that can help you shrink your overflowing inbox, whether it sees 20 or 200 new messages each day.
Next time you’re about to send an email with only one recipient, pick up the phone or walk over to that person’s desk instead. Chances are that message will result in another, which you’ll need to respond to in turn.
Decisions that typically require three or four messages can be resolved on the phone or face-to-face in 45 seconds. Not only is it more efficient, but you’ll avoid a lot of the miscommunication that happens over email.
The reason most of us don’t use these options is partly habit, partly office etiquette, and partly fear of getting sucked into long conversations. But you can still have personal discussions that don’t need to seem rude, awkward, or unnecessarily drawn out. Just say, “Great, thanks for your time. We’ll talk soon,” as soon as you’ve got the answer you need.
Rather than collecting feedback or suggestions from your employees via email, use collaborative tools like Google Docs, Office Online, Samepage, Hackpad, Slack, or your company’s internal software.
Your company might already use one of these platforms, but since it’s still early days in terms of adoption, there’s still considerable overlap with email, especially on big team projects. So define which tasks and undertakings should play out on which platform, then stick with it.
Sometimes the parcelling-out pretty intuitive. Rather than sending an email to each of your 10 direct reports asking for a status update, for instance, invite them to edit one shared “Status Update” document. You’ll only have one page to look at, not 10 separate emails. Plus, you can leave in-line comments, rather than sending yet another message that someone will feel compelled to reply to.
If you want people to send you fewer emails, you might just need to give them permission. Offer your team members the leeway to make decisions without you. Of course, this first requires clearly communicating your organizational, departmental, and individual expectations. But once someone knows the end goal, they can independently take steps to realize it–without checking in with you by email at each step along the way.
Whenever one of your team members makes a particularly effective decision on their own, highlight that example so that your other employees have a model for success. This takes time and a little work. After all, it’s harder than just setting a “send-to” command in your email platform. But it’s a much more effective long-term solution as a result.
As an alternative, try making your employees “temporary managers.” Not only is it great leadership training, but after swapping roles with me for a week, my direct reports have said they’ve gained a better understanding of what I need from them. Our communication from that point on tends to be much more streamlined.
Managers can’t delegate all decisions. And trying to widen participation in the decision-making process can have the reverse effect on email, creating lengthy, multi-party email threads.
One way to cut back on all the back-and-forth is to stop ending emails with questions. End them with statements.
Let’s say you’re trying to set up a meeting with a colleague. You ask, “Are you free on Monday?” She says, “No, but my Tuesday is pretty open.” Then you use two emails to establish the time and meeting place, another email for the calendar invite, and a final email to say, “Talk soon!” That’s too many.
Instead, say, “I’m free to meet on Monday after 4 p.m. or Tuesday between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Please send me a calendar invite for the time that works for you. Let’s meet in the café.” Done.
Easier said than done, I know. But the truth remains: To get fewer emails, send fewer emails. Each message you send will generate between one to three subsequent messages, so don’t write a response unless it’s absolutely critical to what you’re trying to accomplish.
Most one-line emails (“Thanks,” “See you tomorrow,” “I’ll let you know,” etc.) fall into this category. If you find yourself about to send a one-liner, save it to your drafts folder for a day. Chances are, the person you were going to email won’t need a response.
To really make these techniques effective, you have to commit. It wasn’t easy at first when I decided I’d start using the phone more, making preemptive decisions, and cutting back on unnecessary notes. And the hardest part was arguably coaching my team members into making more decisions on their own. But lasting change is never easy. Now, my clean, streamlined inbox reminds me it was worth it.
Diomedes Kastanis is CTO for Business Unit Support Systems at Ericsson, where he leads the company’s long-term technology vision and innovation across media, OSS, BSS, and m-commerce.