I Keep Running Up That Hill: Why is it that the email mountain never gets any smaller?

I’m just back from a week on leave and I have returned to the inevitable email mountain. Last time I took 2 weeks leave, I came back to over 7500 emails and it has taken me to about now, 3 months later, to even vaguely catch up with myself – if you’re one of the 87 who have not yet been dealt with, I apologise.

At the height of the pandemic I was getting more than 600 emails a day. One thing struck me then, and has stayed with me, it’s impossible to deal with them all. Trying was just a state of denial that was not in fact helping the situation. I needed to face up to the reality and know that if the email avalanche was never going to stop, I needed to dig in and find another way. Here are a few things I’ve come up with that enable me to keep running up the email mountain when the peak always remains out of sight.

Expectation management

Like many of the challenges in our day to day working lives, this one can be helped by a little expectation management. This applies to you as much as to everyone else. You are not Superwoman. You will not manage to get through all of the things that are thrown at you every day. The best you are likely to manage is to develop systems that enable you to identify key and urgent tasks. The rest you will need to have other strategies to help you pick at the edges of over time. I think a lot of us fall into the trap of thinking we can do it all, as we remember the days when we got a handful of emails a day and believe that we can handle our current work in the same way. We can’t. This is not our failure. This is merely the reality we now live in. Life has changed, and we need to change with it. So, put your guilt aside and take a step into managing what’s in front of you.

If you email me, and it lands in one of those brief and glorious moments when I am not in a meeting or multi-tasking, you are likely to get an immediate response. Sadly, most emails do not arrive in this sweet spot. They therefore arrive and fall into, what I refer to as, the email black hole. Once you are in the black hole, time has little meaning, it could be 2 minutes until release, it could be 2 months, occasionally it could be 2 years. Being upfront with people about this possible outcome is important as it then enables others, especially your students or direct reports, to have ways of managing you based on urgency or need. I try, therefore, to sign post to others the best ways to deal with both me and the email black hole ahead of time.

Know the rules of the game

I’ve accepted the realities of how I work, and in order to avoid stressing myself and/or disappointing others, it’s necessary to share that knowledge in order to help everyone involved know what to expect. I know that I’m pretty well trained to respond to anything that comes in with big bold red text. I am programmed to be slightly panicked into opening it and for it to therefore stand out against the rest of the list. I am also aware of how poor I am generally at responding to things, and so if I receive multiple emails from the same person, about the same thing, guilt will also cause it to climb higher up my list of priorities. Now, please don’t use this to play the system, but I therefore tell students and people who need to be in the know, that if they need a definite response they need to email me 3 times, in red, with a deadline date in the title. This then triggers all of my mental anxieties and is ‘likely’ to lead to a response.

Outside of psychological strategies you can also consider setting your own rules for your level of engagement, in order to help you prioritise when you have a lot coming in. For me, I’m trying to be more conscious of the whole cc issue. If you email me, if I am the receiver, rather than the cc, I assume you need me to be an active participant. If you cc me in, I will assume it’s a nice to know, an FYI. I will never, therefore, consider an email where I am only cc’d in as urgent. I will get to it when I get to it, which could be in 12 months time. I will also only scan it for context and likely then just file it. I try to make others aware of this and also to be consistent about it myself when I send out emails, although I know it’s a challenge. I am also aware there are some people who set auto file on any emails they are just cc’d in and so it is important to be aware of the rules of others when considering communication. I think I would never read anything I was cc’d on if I set up a filing system that just filed them and I’m not that brave, but this is my middle road.

The last thing I’m trying to be clearer on to others, in terms of rules of response, is that if you email me for a decision/opinion, a none response does not indicate agreement. There are certain people, or groups, that have a tendency to email for an opinion and assume that a none response means I am in agreement. A none response, however, merely means I haven’t seen or had time to respond to your email. Only a response is actually a response. The assumption that a none response is an agreement is probably understandable to some extent, but in this particular case it could lead to incorrect decision making, and so I am trying to define what an interaction with these groups looks like and be better about communicating it and not assuming everyone understands the rules.

Manage your high-risk moments

For me, there are a few high-risk moments when dealing with email mountain. The first is people who send emails and assume that I will be able to see and respond immediately. This is one of those things where I try to be clear about the fact that if something needs an immediate acknowledgement you need to pick up the phone and call me, or better yet call the team phone and they can either action it immediately for you or escalate to me in multiple ways, even if I’m in a meeting. Sending an email in no way ensures I will see it, let alone that I will be able to respond in the moment. If it is urgent, then it needs to be treated as such.

The second is kind of linked. It’s the assumption that I monitor my inbox 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and that my inbox and I are somehow linked, like in the matrix, so I will always be in responsive mode. I’ve lost tract of the number of times this has caused issues, especially when I have an out of office on, as people assume I will still be checking my inbox. For the sake of my own health and wellbeing, I no longer do this, I do not access anything to do with work whilst I am on leave. My teams know I am always available to them on WhatsApp for a quick check-in or escalation, but I am not generally available. They are also great at only getting in contact unless they have need. I am now very clear with my out of office messages and explicitly state that I will not be accessing email or contactable via work phone. I am also clear that I may never get to anything you send during my annual leave period, volumes being what they are. They are then directed to various key contacts, or they can re-send their query when I return. That way, no one can claim they were unaware and I can remove some of the stress of the unknown.

Establish ways to see the woods for the trees

One of the things I particularly struggle with is the panic that sets in when I don’t think I even know whether there are high priority or key things to action in my inbox, just because there is so much in there and most of it is unread. This, for me, can lead to a kind of decision paralysis, and then I just feel completely overwhelmed. BTW, this is definitely where I am now, sitting here writing this blog. I’ve tried a couple of approaches to remove at least some of the detritus that mean I feel out of control and unaware of what’s key.

Firstly, I try to clear my diary, both before and after leave, for a day in order to feel like I’m going away calmer knowing I haven’t left anything urgent, and to help identify important items when I return. This is not always working, this Monday for instance I ended up being on service and a bunch of meetings had dropped in whilst I was away, hence the panic as I still have over 1000 unread, but at least I am making active decisions to try and improve my management.

The second thing I’ve set up are a whole load of rules for auto filing things that I need to have but don’t need to review. This means that emails get moved into folders, and whenever I have time I can open and review them later. These rules need constant review and updating to make sure they are still capturing some of the email senders that fall into this category, but it means there is one less thing to think about and several hundred fewer emails per week in my inbox. The last thing I have set up is a filing system where I can manually move things for different types of action, to try to remove some of my being overwhelmed. I have folders that say: action, read, waiting for response. Emails that go into the action folder are ones that will take more than 5 minutes to do and aren’t urgent, so that I can work my way through them when I have made diary time. Warning – I am sometimes aware that my action folder is where my emails go to die, so if you’re going to have one, might I suggest, you actively manage it rather than risk it just being another form of denial about how much there is to do.

If all else fails say NO

One of my biggest challenges with managing emails, which I alluded to above, is the NHS tendency to have back to back meetings. I can’t read, action and move things forward when I’m in back to back meetings for 8 hours a day. Not just that, but when you already have an email backlog already this just makes it worst, as you end the day with all the emails you started with PLUS all the emails that you haven’t managed to respond to that day. Sometimes, it just feels like quick sand. I’ve started trying to book out time in my diary to support keeping on top of things, trying to keep some meeting free time, but it really is a constant struggle. You may have other issues that compound your struggle, you may not be able to address them all, but at least by reflecting and being aware of them you can be conscious of what is making your workflow harder.

There is always a final option, one to be used in rare and extreme circumstances when it all become too much. You can declare email bankruptcy. You can, if you’ve managed to action the urgent, put out a message that says that you will not be acting on any emails sent before a certain date and that if they are important please re-send or get in touch. Then you file everything away in a folder that’s clearly labelled, so you still have it, but are honest with yourself about the fact that you are not actively working on it’s contents. That way if something comes through and the information in that folder is required you can search for it, but you have effectively cleared your desk to focus on present/future. It’s the nuclear option but it is sometimes psychologically useful to know that it is there.

So there you have it, some of the ways I’m trying to manage the never ending inbox. Email is not going away and working practices mean that we are likely to receive more and more of it not less. Finding ways to manage what’s in front of you without losing your health and well being is key. There are only so many hours in the day and, I speak from experience, just trying to work every weekend to compensate does not make it better, nor is it sustainable. We therefore need to change both our attitudes to email and how we define rules for ourselves and others around it. For a tool that is about supporting communication, communication is key to managing it. When it gets too much, managing the email mountain , like all forms of challenge, is about taking it one day at a time and being kind to ourselves as the only route forward.

All opinions in this blog are my own

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