Illustration: Naomi Elliott

WORK SMARTER

How to get on top of the inbox mountain (so it doesn’t get on top of you) 

With unanswered emails one of the biggest stresses of everyone’s working day, how do you tackle them? Alice Tate calls on some busy – but ruthlessly efficient – friends

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By Alice Tate on

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I was on the bus with my brother last night, half-listening to what he was saying, half-replying to emails, when he grabbed my phone, rapidly swiped through my inbox and said, “Jesus, you could spend all day just replying to these!” That’s the problem – I could. In fact, a lot of us could – according to a recent survey, the average Brit sends and receives a staggering 10,000 emails a year, spending 10 per cent of our whole day at the computer.

Lots of studies have shown there is a direct link between people’s stress levels and a full inbox, and I can certainly identify with this. I really do try to reply to as many emails as possible because I hate the idea of leaving people hanging – mainly because I myself hate being left hanging. As well as working full-time, I freelance as a writer, pitching ideas to editors, some who I know, others who I don’t. When I first started out, it was demoralising. Ten emails and two replies: one out-of-office and one saying the idea wasn’t for them. Oh. What about the other eight though? Should I email again? Should I click "resend"?

Three years on and I’m a bit better at dealing with no replies. I have more confidence in knowing they don’t hate me and think I’m stupid; they’re actually, most likely, just *really* busy.

I also know this because, in my day job as a PR for a hotel, I now have people email-hassling me. Can I stay at your hotel? What did you think of the below? Did you see my email from this morning? (Anyone who chases at 2pm from an email they sent at 10am needs to absolutely calm down.) And, sometimes, the day forces me to leave people hanging, although I always feel bad about it – so, every evening, I comb through my inbox, replying, always with the words, “So sorry for not getting back to you earlier…”

'Throw in a few exclamation marks to keep the recipient happy.' I find this one isn’t a method to make friends, but it does make you FAST. I’m using a lot of exclamation marks!!!! To be nice!!!!

But how can you get back to them earlier when the emails keep piling in? How does anyone in this day and age ever hope to tackle their inbox mountain?

“Simply only reply to messages that positively need a reply,” suggests a friend. “Delete the rest and, if it’s really important, they’ll email again, call or find you in person.” This friend is more senior in her job than me and she’s ruthless. I like it! It’s efficient, sharp, strict.

Another friend only checks and replies to her emails at strictly 9am, 12pm and 4pm. So strictly in fact she states it in her email signature. I try it and, although I like the real structure to it, it definitely doesn’t work for me. At 9am, it’s all just spammy emails from the US. At 12pm, I’m out and about and, by that point, so inundated I find myself sending out typo-filled replies on my iPhone. At 4pm, I'm wading through ones that have come in since midday and rewording the typos from earlier. Gah! Also, sometimes, I kind of really like checking my emails sporadically, to hear about the fun stuff…

“Cut to the chase. Be quick, cut the crap, if you want to seem less coarse, throw in a few exclamation marks to keep the recipient happy.” Another ruthless friend. I find this one isn’t a method to make friends, but it does make you FAST. I’m using a lot of exclamation marks!!!! To be nice!!!!

My best friend, who’s an editor at a weekly magazine, is surely more inundated with messages than me. She swears by the "minimise or delete" method. “Whizz through your emails, delete the shitty ones and minimise (or star) all of the ones that need replies. Once you’ve reached zero unread (yay!), go back through and power through the pile, knowing each of those are relevant, want-to-read messages, worthy of your time.”

Finally, there’s always the “video game method”, as my old boss used to call it. She’d get a green tea, get in the zone and attack her inbox. “You can’t move on to the next email — “level”, we’ll call it — until you’ve dealt with the last, be it replied, actioned, deleted or forwarded.”

After spending far too many hours reading all my emails, then re-reading them and replying to ones I want to reply to, then going back through in the evening and doing the heartier paragraph responses, I honestly find this to be the most efficient, time-saving, people-pleasing method. Winner!

@ALICETATE_

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Illustration: Naomi Elliott
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