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How many unread emails do you have?

How many email messages are currently sitting in your inbox, unread?

Most busy professionals are overwhelmed by their email. They get far more messages than they can ever respond to in any credible or worthwhile way. And their answer is simple: just ignore most of the messages. Plead ‘busy-busy’ status; reply only to the most urgent emails; and let the rest just…sit.

Is this a sensible strategy?

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant says not. He wrote recently in the New York Times: being overwhelmed is no excuse. Most of us are. That does not mean we can get away with simple snubbing in the digital realm, any more than we can in real life. Email remains the working world’s primary mode of communication. To suggest to that world that you can’t manage your end is to confirm that you can’t hack it.

Professor Grant points out a study that shows that the clearest warning sign of an ineffective manager is being slow to answer emails. If you just let them accumulate, you’re simply not doing your job well.

I have observed senior executives fall into a pattern of email overload and neglect, and invariably they start missing some crucial messages as well. There are so many instances in our modern lives of people claiming they failed to attend a critical event, or neglected to take crucial action, simply because they ‘didn’t see that email.’

Indeed, many wear this ‘busyness’ as a badge of honour. They think it is the prerogative of extremely busy folks in lofty perches to just ignore most people. Breaking news: being bad at managing your work is not a sign of success.

But wait, you scream as you take a short break from your busyness to read this column: am I supposed to respond to every email that assaults my inbox?

Certainly not. If you get 100+ emails a day, responding to all of them could take huge chunks out of your calendar. I know I can’t do that. And actually a whole bunch of emails tend to be unsolicited pleas from people for you to help them with their agendas, not yours. If you fall into that trap, you will lose control over your time, in no time.

The answer is to take a measured approach to the problem. Set up a method to deal with your communications, and set some boundaries. How can it be done? Consider these approaches.

Set a standard for the promptness of your replies to the most important emails, and use modern digital scheduling and flagging tools to do this. Make sure you never ignore certain key people in your working life or miss their requests or updates, by flagging them as ‘VIPs’ with preferred status. Look at the new generation of intelligently generated standard responses that show you have read and noted the message without needing to craft out a considered response. Pass on all the mails that do not need your personal intervention to an assistant to manage. Make it very clear when you are taking a break and will not be responding to mails, giving the sender an option for what to do instead. Educate people on other channels that you prefer and find easier to reply to; in fact, take most of your internal work communications to messaging and work-management apps.

Get serious and design your own methods. The point is to maintain professional etiquette and competence while not sacrificing most of your productive time. If you’re a busy person, replying to everything asked of you is not feasible. Equally, simply ignoring the mounting load of messages just suggests ineptitude. Find your own way, but make it clear and simple. It won’t be perfect, and lapses will occur. The point is to minimise the risk.

But let’s also turn our attention to those on the other side of the email deluge: the senders. Are you a serial emailer, sending out every little thing to every possible person? Do you press ‘reply all’ to everything, just to cover your behind? Do you think it is your right to ask for help from every possible person?

If that’s you, you’re causing the problem. Don’t be at all surprised if you are ignored most of the time. In fact, if most people never reply to most of your emails, that’s a dead giveaway that you are rapidly making yourself irrelevant.

In sum: email matters. Whether sending or receiving, manage it smartly.

(Sunday Nation, 24 February 2019)

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