Why Email Overload is an Overgiving Problem

Email overload can be regarded as an overgiving problem. Sure, you get too many emails each day, and they take too long to answer. If you’re like many people, however,  you’re reluctant to face the problem by: (1) leaving some (or many) emails unanswered, and (2) answering most of the remaining ones tersely. (Many people write multi-paragraph emails when a simple “Sorry – can’t do it.” or “Great!” or “See you at 8!” will do.) This isn’t all your fault! Here are some factors that make email so tricky:

  • We get a lot of emails. If you get just twenty a day and spent just three extra minutes on each one, that’s an hour lost each day! When you’re flooded with emails you’ve got to be super-efficient in dealing with them or they’ll bury you.
  • Email occupies a weird middle terrain between the formality and permanence of written communication and the informality and impermanence of spoken communication.
  • You’re getting many different types of emails thrown at you. That makes it harder to deal with them efficiently en masse via filters, signatures, autoresponders, and other time-savers.

Spending three hours answering emails when you can only budget one hour to the task does qualify as overgiving. This is true even if the emails are worth answering! However, it’s doubly true if the main reason you’re spending all that time is not because doing so supports your mission, but because: (a) it’s conventional to answer one’s emails, and you don’t want to break with convention, or (b) you’re afraid of offending someone.

The solution is to start discarding and answering tersely with much more frequency. Not every email needs an answer, or a long answer. Note that if you have a tendency toward overgiving, you’ll probably feel like you’re being a bit rude or abrupt when you do this. That feeling is a sign you’re doing it right! (It will go away soon, especially once you start reveling in all the time you’re reclaiming.)

Of course, once in a while you might make a mistake, and delete or answer tersely something that required more attention. Mistakes are the perfectionist’s worst nightmare. But they go along with the territory. Far better to screw up by undergiving once in a while then to squander huge chunks of time by routinely overgiving.  If someone expresses surprise or unhappiness at a terse answer explain that the terseness doesn’t reflect your opinion of them or their project, but simply the realities of your time management.

Of course, also do use filters, signatures, autoresponders, and other email time-savers when you can!

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