Dealing with email overload as a small business owner

Here, Martin Perry explores how SMEs can take action against the overload of emails they have to deal with.

Emails can be the bane of a small business owner’s life, they are important yet intrusive, divide time and split attention but also provide a manageable communication system… if you know how to conquer the oft times overwhelming flow. With incessant pings and pop-ups it’s no wonder that emails are often cited as one of the biggest distractions within an office.

If you, like many others, approach your desk with trepidation in the mornings already thinking of the time that will be wasted working your way through the emails that have piled up in your inbox there are ways to tackle the issue and to tame the inbox.

I have encountered all the common moans and groans regarding emails; I know how to fix them or even prevent them from appearing in the first place. Here, I’ll run through some of the most frequent grumbles and offer some handy, easy-to-implement tips on how you can regain control of your emails.

‘Half my day’s taken up sending or replying to emails!’

As a small business owner there are a million and one things to do each day, after all it’s unlikely you are at the point with dedicated staff taking care of everything for you just yet. When it comes to the morning routine many people are set in their ways, arrive, coffee, emails, if you find yourself struggling for time throughout the day freeing the morning up can change the way you approach work.

Which is why you should stop opening your emails…

This may sound crazy for some but by opening up Outlook (or your client of choice) you are opening up distraction, when you arrive at work tomorrow get dug in with the work that keeps getting left behind, leave the emails an hour or two into the day. Once you do open them give yourself a time limit, if the email you’re reading can’t be dealt with within two minutes move on and come back to it when you have more time.

‘Having pop-ups and pings in the corner of the screen makes focusing impossible’

This constant distraction which results in attention being displaced not only pulls you away from what you were working on but research shows that it can take up to two minutes to re-focus on the task at hand. Either stop sending unnecessary emails or use an auto-reply to disappear. Firstly, with business email there’s a straight forward equation, outgoing=incoming, if you’re finding your inbox full of ‘RE:’s’ take a step back and ask yourself how many of the initial emails were actually required.

Another useful tool at your disposal is the auto-response, typically utilised when away on holidays or out in meetings this feature can also be used to distance yourself from the need to instantly reply to an email. If you are the type of person that feels to need to reply to an email as soon as it arrives you are wasting hours a day, not only through actually writing the reply but from the time lost having to refocus on what you were actually supposed to be working on. By turning on an ‘out of office’ auto-reply those trying to get a hold of you will know not to expect an actual response immediately.

‘I feel like there are times where I’m writing an email for the sake of it rather than for necessity’

There are times when you receive an email that contains a single sentence, one line which serves as a minor irritation rather than informing you of whatever it contains. If you find yourself sending these types of emails, stop. Believe it or not the subject line can be much more useful than thinking of an attractive headline, if all you’re sending an email for is to send information such as dates or timings why not just stick it in the subject. The message still gets across but it only takes a glance to see and no long-winded reply is expected, win-win.

‘I have a tendency to lose important information in the scrum of emails’

A side effect that arises from a lack of order in your inbox is a predisposition to losing emails amidst the disarray; there are a couple of different ways to tackle this issue. The first is extremely simple, all those newsletters and updates that regularly arrive daily… unsubscribe from all of them. It might sound extreme but how many of these do you actually read? By ridding yourself of the clutter you may realise just how little you did with them anyway.

The second method is to change the way you search, there are lots of search criteria that can be used to streamline the way you search and produce more relevant results. While you are already using a few, for example, if you use Outlook the default search bar includes three different ways to search. These being: Keyword, from and Subject, there are actually a number of others that you could use including: To, Date, Cc or received: last week, among others. These can all be used together by using traditional syntax search options such as AND/OR.

‘I save time by Cc-ing people into existing email chains’

Once again, another bad habit that some people have fallen into is the misuse of the Cc function, double points for using ‘Reply-all’ when responding. The NHS hit the news last November after one member of staff accidentally sent an email to EVERY address on the service, thanks to the ‘Reply-all’ culture at the organisation 140 million preventable emails were fired, taking down the server and causing chaos across the service. Always take a few seconds to consider whether everyone actually needs to see your reply.

These are just a few issues I’ve heard during the many Taming Your Inbox workshops I have hosted so far, with answers on how they could have dealt with their issues. All the people behind these quotes were taking part in a workshop.

Martin Perry is founder of Taming Your Inbox

Further reading on inboxes

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