The Science of Surviving Large Volumes of Email


While there are lots of different ways to manage email at low volumes, there is a convergence of research findings underway. Altogether, studies show that as email volumes increase your choices become more limited if you hope to remain effective.

science of surviving large volumes of emailThe Science of Surviving Large Volumes of Email

It’s likely that you are facing a rapid increase in the number of email messages you receive. What should you do in the future if you decided to take on a new project or accept a promotion? How will you cope then?

The solution isn’t to avoid email. Some people tell others “I’m not good with email,” “Call me instead” or “I don’t have time for email.” Some just lie – “I didn’t get your message…” All these responses are fast becoming signs of incompetence.

However, it’s not our fault. We were never taught how to manage large numbers of incoming messages. In the absence of proper training, most of us defaulted to snail-mail techniques. In the post office world, mail is meant to be read slowly, leisurely and passively. It’s an approach that worked when you received 20 or 30 email messages per week. Now, as you approach the average of global 150 messages per day, it fails because it just doesn’t scale. Here is a way that you can cope.

The Real Problem: Triggers
The first realization is that the problem isn’t the number of bits and bytes hurtling at you via email in cyber-space. It’s your response to the triggers lying within each message that creates an issue.

To explain: we read email, looking for triggers for new time demands (i.e. self-generated tasks.) This conversion is normal, but it’s a mechanism you can manage.

What you can’t control is the number of incoming messages. By design, your email address is an open invitation to the general public to send you an infinite number of potential triggers. This has created a problem over time.

Today, you are probably trying to process large numbers of messages using the same techniques you used to process small numbers. Now, you are faced with a scaling error which can only be avoided by learning to switch between two different modes of thinking and feeling.

Mode One – Skepticism, Deletion and Emptying
This is the mode to adopt when you first open your Inbox. It’s one of sprinting, as you empty your Inbox as fast as possible. To help focus your attention, use a kitchen timer with a loud ticking sound – it will help you stay in the ultra-focused state that’s required.

As you process each message, imagine acting like a skeptical, rigid quality inspector at the end of a production line. Your job would be to accept only a handful of items, continuing until the last one has been processed. In factories, there’s only a single exception allowed. If you discover a bonafide emergency that risks a loss of life, limb or property, then you can stop everything, rectifying the situation before production is resumed, taking as little time as possible.

In the case of email, you should also pause to handle emergencies. Once handled, return to your sprint to process and remove all the messages out of your Inbox as fast as you can.
You should opt for one of the following:

– If an email has no triggers, immediately delete the item or save it to your archives, far outside your Inbox.

– If it includes a valid trigger (and, therefore, passes your inspection), also remove it from your Inbox. Store it safely for later execution in Mode Two in one of the following ways. Either add it to a To-Do List, put it in your calendar, give it your auto-scheduler or store important information in the right database (such as an address book.)

At the end of this mode, your email Inbox is empty.

(N.B. The technique of leaving email messages in your Inbox, marking them as unread, only works for small volumes.)

Mode Two – Thoughtful Action On Your Time Demands

In Mode Two you are no longer sprinting. Now, you can execute delayed time demands which were safely stored.

As you do so, notice that the act of completing time demands relieves stress. This occurs because it rids us of the nagging feeling that something is incomplete, a phenomena psychologists call the Zeigarnik Effect. The two-mode approach works to alleviate that feeling because recent research shows that it also disappears when you manage your time demands well.

To keep stress away, you must commit to entering Mode One on a scheduled basis, rather than randomly. Turning off your PC, tablet or smartphone’s email reminders is a start.

Another technique is to stay in Mode One as long as you can, without being distracted by non-emergencies such as Facebook or the news. This ensures that all potential triggers have been handled, relieving you of the Zeigarnik Effect.

Let colleagues know you are answering email on a schedule.  If someone insists on immediate responses, politely hand them a copy of my June 12, 2012, Gleaner article: “How Executives Unwittingly Turn Employees into Morons.”

Handling large numbers of email has now become a matter of professional competence. Sound techniques are the only solution to a challenge that will never go away.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. To receive a free summary of links to his past articles, send email to


Here is the link to the original article on the Gleaner website

How to Stop People from Grabbing Your Valuable Time Away Part 2 – Meetings


How to Stop People From Grabbing Your Valuable Time Away – Part 2

Have you ever been in a meeting when, after only a few minutes, you realize that your precious time is about to be wasted? Social pressure may keep you rooted to your chair until it’s safe to leave, but how should your organization prevent valuable hours from being lost from the outset?

In my last column, I addressed the problem of email abuse in organizations while offering immediate solutions, plus a few from the future. In this article, I turn to another problem that’s similar. Meetings have the potential to waste thousands of hours but the average company does little to prevent the loss. Here are three suggestions.

1. Use technology to focus meetings
You may know what it’s like to see a meeting start off on the right foot before veering off into a vast, random wasteland. To help keep your team on track, download an app that displays the running, total meeting cost. Most apps measure it by multiplying the average cost of an attendee by the total number attending. The results are shown in real time on a laptop or mobile device.

Try Meeting Cost Meter, available via the Android platform. It’s simple, but it amplifies the thoughts everyone has at these moments: “How much are we wasting?” and “What else could I be doing?”

2. Use technology to assess meetings
After the meeting ends, most people shy away from giving the facilitator direct feedback. This website, accessible via smartphone, takes away the social challenge –

It offers a straightforward opportunity. At the meeting’s end, attendees fill out a form, then the program tabulates the facilitator’s results. The fact that the feedback is anonymous and the app is easy to use should make it an irresistible tool. However, few organizations demonstrate the will needed to implement it. “Too controversial” they may say as they continue to flush precious time down the drain.

3. Use future technology to preventing wasted meetings
Steve Jobs was famous for keeping meetings as small as possible.  According to Ken Segall, author of Insanely Simple – The Obsession that Drives Apple’s Success, Jobs openly (and sometimes abruptly) dismissed people who weren’t needed. Today, in most organizations, anyone can call a meeting without ever declaring its purpose with clarity. Furthermore, anyone is allowed to attend, even if their added value is questionable.

In the future, to keep meetings tight, I imagine that each employee will receive a meeting budget, measured by time units. Whoever sets up a meeting would see a subtraction from their annual budget, modified by the meeting’s duration and the number/level of the invitees.

Also, a meeting called without defining its purpose, agenda and logistics would incur a greater deduction. At year end, employees would review their budget vs. actual expenditures with managers, in order to make adjustments and receive direct coaching.

These technologies may work because they reverse some of the same problems companies have with email usage. Here is a shortened list:
– Once you are invited, it is hard to ignore or dismiss the meeting without incurring a social cost. Politically, it’s often easier to go along with a bad meeting that serves no purpose than it is to put up a fight.
– The cost of bad meetings is hidden and shared, so no single person is ever held accountable. Imagine if there were a public scorecard showing your performance as a meeting convenor.
– People who hold bad meetings are never coached to become better. They suffer along, never knowing that it’s a skill that can be dramatically improved.

But you don’t have to wait for all these technologies to be ready. Start by implementing these three suggestions right away.

1. Include meeting management as a component of performance review. Implement the after-meeting app/feedback tool, using it as a measure of individual performance.

2. Make it clear that meetings have a cost. Encourage employees to download the meeting cost app and help them use it every time. Periodically, advertise the total time spent in meetings to promote a new level of vigilance.

3. Train all employees in the best practices for leading meetings, including top executives. (They are guilty of calling some of the worst meetings I have ever attended.) Never assume that successfully managing meetings is just common sense.

In my November 22nd article on the Japanese post-War turnaround, I explained that the country’s factories succeeded by cutting operational waste. It was a novel technique  that helped Japan became a world leader, partly because the approach could be used in so many ways, in so many industries. Jamaican companies use meetings and email inefficiently, but we can adopt available technologies to make them better. Perhaps it would lead to other improvements that are hard to imagine, such as a renaissance in productivity plus an impact on GDP. Let’s find out by paying attention to a cost that’s fully within our control.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. To receive a free summary of links to his past articles, send email to

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