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3 Research Backed Ways To Prevent Email Overload at Work

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By Rebecca Hinds, Inc.

Are you a slave to your inbox? It's time to regain control. 

When it comes to office time sinks, there are no shortage of culprits. From mismanaged meetings to unclear expectations to noisy office chatter, distractions are everywhere

For most workers, email is an especially destructive force. According to research by McKinsey, the average professional spends 28 percent of their workday reading and answering email. Unfortunately, much of this time is unproductive. It's led to an era of email overload.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Email overload has caused many companies to take radical measures. It has even led to companies such as IT services company Atos and advertising company Atomic 212 to ban internal email altogether.

Fortunately, there are several ways to prevent email overload at work.


1. Resist overuse of the CC'.

One of the biggest causes of email overload is the commonly-misused CC' button. Sometimes it's used too frequently. Sometimes it's used to undermine coworkers by alerting a superior of some less-than-favorable action such as work, conduct, or attitude that's been revealed in an email. And sometimes it is used to flaunt work.

Regardless of intent, the CC' button often leads to distraction and context switching. Importantly, it also erodes trust. Research by the University of Cambridge's David De Cremer found that workers who more frequently CC' coworkers in emails to supervisors cause their coworkers to feel less trusted. This has a domino effect and leads them to believe their company has a low-trust culture, in turn causing fear and low levels of psychological safety.

Workers should use the CC' sparingly and only when necessary. The CC' should never be used for malicious purposes or to flaunt work--in-person meetings are much more productive outlets. If email conversations transform into a back-and-forth, a more synchronous platform such as Slack or an old-fashion phone call constitutes better alternatives.  


2. Limit context shifting.

The flood of emails hitting our inboxes is distracting. When we receive an email alert, we're quick to jump to see what it contains. One study performed by researchers at Loughborough University found that 70 percent of all emails received are opened within six seconds of their receipt.

When we ravenously check our email, it takes time and effort to reorient ourselves back to what we were doing before being interrupted. We lose the context of what we were doing and need to spend time getting back on track. How much time? Research has shown that it takes you an average of 64 seconds to resume the original task.

To avoid becoming a slave to our inboxes, we need to limit context shifting. Log out of email to avoid a constant deluge of notifications. Check email in batches and only during a limited timeframe each day. Use a synchronous communication tool like Slack to ensure you can be alerted of anything urgent. A work management tool such as Asana-- and full disclosure, I work for Asana-- also goes a long way in reducing context shifting. Because conversations about your team's work are housed alongside the actual work, there's no need to context switch in order to receive work-related notifications.


3. Lessen information search costs.

Our email inboxes are a disorientating mess. Emails often lack context and don't include the information we need to fully understand the contents. Emails may reference documents that aren't attached. Or they may refer to information and events that recipients have little or no knowledge of. 

When emails lack context, we typically need to leave our inboxes and go on a treasure hunt to find the information needed to process the email. This packs a big punch in terms of time wasted. Today's workers spend nearly two hours each day engaging in this type of gathering and searching of information, according to research by McKinsey.

Reducing information search costs should be prioritized. Company information can be housed in a centralized resource that is easily searchable and well organized. Real-time document collaboration tools such as Google Apps and work management platforms where conversations are embedded alongside the actual work should be emphasized. If email is used, emails should be embedded with links that reference relevant tasks, projects, and important company information, in turn limiting search costs.

Email was designed to transmit short messages, not to get work done. It's an antiquated tool that organizations have haphazardly latched on to for decades. Our organizations are experiencing rapid change. Why shouldn't our communication and collaboration methods follow suit? It's long past due for organizations and their workers to put productivity on a pedestal and take a stand against email overload.

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