Everybody uses email multiple times during the day and email represents a key communication channel. Managing the flood of emails effectively, will reduce your stress.

In this episode, we discuss various approaches, that we learned over the years from different productivity experts. We discuss how we implement them in our daily routines.

By listening to this episode, you’ll learn about these topics:

  • What are helpful mindsets about emails
  • Five step approach to managing emails
  • Good habits to establish like
  • Reply in a timely manner
  • Send and respond less to receive less.
  • Tips on how to set up filters
  • Smartphone vs desktop email checking
  • When and when not to work on emails
  • And the option of last resort


Tips and tricks to reduce your email burden including the last resort option

Welcome to the Effective Statistician with Alexander Schacht and Benjamin Piske. The weekly podcast for statisticians in the health sector designed to improve your leadership skills, widen your business acumen and enhance your efficiency. In today’s episode number 6 we’ll talk about

tips and tricks to reduce your email burden, including the option of last resort. This podcast is sponsored by PSI, a global member organization dedicated to leading and promoting best practice and industry initiatives for statisticians. Learn more about upcoming events at www.psiweb.org

Welcome to the new episode of The Effective Statistician. My name is Benjamin Piske and I’m here together with Alexander. Hi, nice to talk again. Hi, Alexander. It’s good to talk to you. Actually, I was writing an email earlier today to you and email writing is different than talking as we know.

And today we take the opportunity to talk about emails. As I said, emails is quite important and most of you, if not every one of you, wrote emails before, received emails before. And I don’t know, Alexander, how many emails do you get every day? Probably in the range of 80 to 100. So that is just to my direct…

personal email address. So in addition, I have filtered out, you know, general news, stuff like this and emails that I get via bigger distribution lists. So yeah. It’s impressive. And at work? Or only at work. Oh, wow.

I’m probably not the only one. I think it just depends on how many projects you’re involved and what the kind of communication culture is. And if you’re working very virtually, so that lots of communication is via email, that triggers a lot of things. And of course, certain email behaviors also trigger a lot of things.

How much time do you spend then on writing or reading emails per day? Can you quantify this? It’s probably something like two hours. Okay. I think for me it’s even more. Do you think it’s a kind of a wasted time usually? Or is it like a burden rather?

How do you feel about the emails receiving that many emails? It’s both. Sometimes it’s really a burden, especially if I come back from vacation and I see thousands of emails in my inbox and it’s kind of overflowing. And then it really feels like a burden. And if you can’t catch up with the email, it feels like a burden.

I’m always trying to readjust my mindset about that. So because.

I can also see that as all these emails as an opportunity, as an opportunity to help, to influence, to drive things forward. And especially also in terms of emails to my team to lead the people and to develop the people. And sometimes I also see that as personal development. What do you mean with that?

For example, you’ve write a very important email to a bigger distribution list. So I’m actually spending a little bit more time to craft the email much more carefully to make sure that the email is written in a really good style so that it’s very clear and the message that I want to send comes across very clear. So I think…

And that is kind of where I’m spending more time and I’m trying to intentionally learn about that. What kind of techniques can I use to actually improve the writing style so that the email has the effect that I want to have and doesn’t backfire.

be constructive in using the emails or writing the emails rather than just reading, deleting and managing it in a not priority way. But you mentioned before that you said you use the emails to help or to influence or to lead your team. But isn’t this automatically?

you know, any email that is written should make use of the, you know, of that opportunity to help to provide something to influence, to give information to lead or to mentor. Yeah, if you have well written emails, then that is the case. But I think you can also write a lot of emails that actually more…

distract or confuse and don’t really help. And you know, just

increase the flood of emails overall without actually kind of pushing the things forward. But I think that depends very much on how you approach the emails. But when you say you approach the emails, what is your standard way of receiving or you’re managing your emails? So is it…

I mean, I know that people, you know, running through, you know, through the streets or, you know, with their mobile in their hand and just, you know, checking emails once in a while or even replying while walking and stuff. So how do you manage or what approach do you take to manage your AT100, let’s say, more important emails? So, I have two different approaches. It depends on whether I’m actually at my PC.

or whether I read the emails on my smartphone. Let’s first go to the PC approach, because that is a more comprehensive approach. So I follow there a five-step approach that I learned a couple of years ago. One of the principles behind that is to try to read every email only once. So not kind of…

Read it, think about it, let it stay there, set to unread again, read it again, still don’t sure what to do about it, set it to unread again and it stays in your inbox all the time and it doesn’t really move forward. And then it becomes even more kind of a burden. So I’m trying to follow this five-step approach.

And the first step is really if the email has an action in it, that I can do within two minutes, something like this. I take the action directly and then either I delete the email or file the email. One of the actions could also be that I just need to delegate it.

So it’s not something for me to actually take care, but I delegate it to the team member or move it forward. So.

Also something that’s very, very quick to do. Another thing is that I actually deferred back. So, for example, it’s not complete, I need further information or something like this. So then also it’s kind of gone. The next step is just delete it. So there’s lots of emails that you know,

just get for your information or things like this. Or it’s just, yeah, of course spam or stuff like this. Just hit delete and it’s gone. And in the end, yeah, just file them. And I think that depends probably on the different working structures within the different organizations. I’m trying to file them.

rather roughly. So, it used to have lots of different folders and subfolders and subfolders of all kinds of different things. And it took a lot of time to actually manage then all these filings and things like this. And then you may get an email that would actually fit into different

two folders or stuff like this. I rather use the metadata that the email anyway comes with and much more search through email. That’s how I can reduce my time that I actually spend with emails. Yeah, that’s what I’m doing as well. It’s just having usually one folder per project, let’s say, or per bigger topic. Sometimes for special cases, for example, if there’s

you know, events that happened or needed to be discussed or where decision is still quite, you know, important, then I do create a subfolder. But this is just rather rare. So it’s really if you have a set like a case, a separate case that can be clearly identified as such, and then you can file it into one folder. But otherwise, I use the search function over full, you know, the out the outlook or the whatever you use as a program.

and don’t spend too much time in managing the filing. Yeah. What I’m actually doing also in my calendar is that I have specific times where I look into my email. So I’m very tempted in the morning to first kind of go into my email, but I made the experience and that is very often kind of driving my…

complete day. And very early in the morning is actually my most productive time from just from my ability to tackle more complex things. So I’m trying to not directly open my email, but first get a couple of difficult things done. Do you know the book Deep Work? I think we talked about it before, yes. Yeah. So this is…

kind of, you know, what I’m trying to tackle, what’s called deep work. So really cognitively demanding work, like, you know, reviewing a protocol or writing an SAP or writing a manuscript or coming up with a solution for a technically demanding project, things like this.

where you just need a little bit more time, 30 minutes, an hour to really get some things done and not these kind of 30 minutes, 30 seconds tasks of one email after the other. I believe that’s what I usually recommend if people feel like this is a burden or we discuss the email topic in general.

turn off the email completely, just close it, and do your work for one hour, two hours or whatever. So really concentrate on what it’s doing. Don’t get distracted by, you know, popping, seeing the pop-ups from incoming emails or the sounds or whatever people like to have usually to realize that their new email is coming in. But I’m not as, you know, as well structured as you are, obviously.

doing it in the morning and so on because I’m usually doing the check in the morning first to see what happened overnight, working in different regions together. But then turn it off if I do have some really burning and urgent difficult things to complete.

emails shouldn’t be, you know, if you get an email, there shouldn’t be the expectations that you answered within a couple of minutes. Well, sometimes there’s a situation that you are expecting something to come in and you urgently wait for it. So but usually, that is rather rare. But I think this is this is the mindset of people sometimes that they that, you know, they feel like

The emails and the responsiveness to emails or to the availability to read the emails is such an important thing. And as I say, it is in very rare cases. But otherwise, I think email is not the most important task that you are supposed to do in a timely and responsive manner. Therefore, I think turning it off is one of the most important things to do.

to not get distracted every two minutes by incoming emails. Yeah, and I think if you sit on these emails and you just check them all the time, you actually don’t get in the cognitive state to actually get something relevant done. And it takes so much longer than to get these things done.

reviewing an SAP. You may get it done in, let’s say, one hour. If you constantly check emails during this time, you probably need half a day, at least, to get it done. And then also with a poor quality. And you don’t feel good about it. So I rather have set these batching modes in terms of emails, put them all together.

and limit them in terms of when you work on it. And really, if you work on the emails, let’s say, twice a day or maybe three times a day, that’s completely sufficient. Usually it is. I agree. But going back to managing the emails or the inbox in general, do you use… I mean, other way around is I’m using, for example, coloring of emails. So I prioritize emails.

automatically then by giving them different colors when they come in. So I set colors for emails that are where I’m only on the NCC line. I’m setting colors where, you know, different colors to what when I’m on the 2 line. And sometimes, you know, even different color for emails that are where I am the only, you know, one on the 2 line. So it’s really giving a little bit of a, you know, priority.

coming in. So then when I check my emails, I do see which ones are directed to me. And you know, I’m not just in for your information and you know, by finding it out. Or even BCC. So BCC emails are just something completely different. So in terms of that, I had that as well. But in my email culture didn’t work because most of the people actually didn’t care.

whether people were in two or three. Then I missed lots of important stuff where there was actually a task for me in it, but I was just CC’d on it. What I actually do, I use filtering for my emails. All certain things, let’s say general news, go into a certain


box automatically, which I then check on a time to time basis, but this is all kind of non-urgent stuff. Then there is certain other newsletters that I get, for example, on leadership. They go into a certain box so that I can batch process them. And as I said, I…

divide between emails that go directly to me and those that go to where I’m just in a larger email distribution list, which also makes it easier because usually these emails are not that important. I think for filtering, I’m doing the same for where you have clear sender where it’s easy to filter.

project numbers or project names or something. This is really leading to a lot of confusion. Just as an example, if you have a project number and you think that’s good, then all my project-related emails for that project go into one folder and then you can just check and read and it’s automatically sorted. But the problem is, for example, if you receive lists of projects and an attachment. This is also recognized by the program that there’s a number.

the number that you are filtering for. So this email is then going directly into the project related folder, even though it is general information about all project that you are involved or project of your colleagues, company or group, whatever. So it’s really be careful with how to filter and make it unique. And otherwise, you know, you might miss out some information as well, because it just went off.

There’s two other tricks that I use to actually get less email. The first one is that I’m trying to be more

clear in how I write emails so that they don’t trigger lots of additional questions. So let’s say I want to get an answer on a specific topic and I directly give options for that. Do you want A or do you want B? Or if we organize kind of a meeting, then you could give options for it rather than asking what would you…

When would you have time? You know, I check my calendar first and say, I have time here and here and here. What’s your availability? So then, you know, instead of having three, four, five emails that are going back and forth, to directly get to the point. Good point. The other point is I think…

just send and respond to less emails is sometimes really, really helpful. So, you know, email is just one way of communication. And sometimes using some other communication channels is actually a much better approach. So picking up the phone, if you just need to discuss it with one person or, you know, use company internal chat or things like that.

can be quite much faster, especially if it’s kind of a little bit of a fuzzy project where it has a potential to go have a lot of back and forth, then it’s really, really helpful. Of course, anyway, if it’s a more sensitive topic, email is usually not the best. Well, it depends. I mean, also on the other hand, you do have the documentation of decisions, for example, documented in…

in emails rather than you have in a chat or on a phone. So I think there are pros and cons to use different approaches and you have to consider carefully what is the best to use. I mean it doesn’t mean that at the end of a call you can’t send out a summary in an email and say, okay, thanks for your call and that’s what we agreed. So this is something we can use as well.

Yeah, I think that’s a good approach to document your actions and decisions in an email afterwards just to close the loop. And also that helps for you and for others to actually further communicate this decision to others in the team, for example. I think you mentioned that there, you know, what the differences between…

smartphone use and desktop use. So what is your approach then or similarities or different approaches then for a smartphone?

So for the smartphone, I don’t like writing long emails, because that is just very, very cumbersome. So I use the smartphone much more to filter and to sort emails, and especially, and just maybe, you know.

I just need to write a very, very quick answer like, yes, no. To delete and to delegate. Exactly. But yeah, so I use that much more kind of as a pre-filter than actually managing my emails via that. Because a short email message…

that is not properly done can lead to much more work than it helps to solve the work. I have seen that so many times. So it’s much better to kind of wait a couple of hours until you sit at your PC again and write a proper email than to send something out quick and dirty just to get the email off your list. And then you get a whole cascade of following.

follow up emails. And you do sometimes realize that people are sending this from their smartphones on the way that they’re writing. So impolite emails in terms of, you know, because they’re skipping the greetings and endings. And it’s just like kind of a, yeah, it’s not a nice style. So I think it’s important in one way sometimes to do it. But I think…

You have to be careful when you’re just sending yes and no back to some of your colleagues. It might not be well received. If I just get an email that asks me, do we meet still tomorrow morning at nine o’clock? That’s a yes-no question. If it’s more kind of something like…

How did you find my presentation today? Probably not the right thing to send in a short email. The other thing about the smartphone, I think, is using the smartphone and looking into emails while doing something different. For example, sitting in meetings. I find that really, really distracting.

this kind of multitasking and trying to work on your emails that way. I think if you’re in a meeting, you should be there in the meeting and should be really present or you shouldn’t be in the meeting at the first place. So, or it’s a very badly organized meeting. I agree that this is, you know, multitasking in meetings is a very bad habit.

and not very uncommon habits, unfortunately. But there are meetings indeed where the multitasking is the only option to overcome the meetings. So yeah, but I think emails is kind of very often the only, you know, is this trigger and then even more if people have this email notification on their phone. Yeah, that is actually a very good point because the email notification on the phone

And also, you know, if you see on the apps, for example, the little numbers, the little notifications of how many emails you received in between, that is very distracting when you use your email. Also, I mean, this now goes into the weekend work and, you know, during vacation and stuff that you still receive emails and you see how many emails you received over the day and, you know, keep on wondering what it is and why they’re sending emails while you’re on vacation. So, I think turning this off is really important.

because it’s, I mean, they’re good options, they’re good, you know, ways of, you know, if you’re waiting for something very important, and you’re waiting for it, and that’s why you would like to know when you receive emails to check whether it’s not there. Okay, fine. But in general, I think just turn it off. It helps. It doesn’t help you at all. If you have the time to spend to read your emails, then you open it and otherwise close it, leave it.

As you speak about the vacation.

I want my team to be on vacation when they’re on vacation, so I don’t expect them to work on emails. We usually have a different channel for really kind of emergency situation, where I would call them directly or something like this. And these things, you know, happen. Don’t know.

every 10 years or something like this. Yeah, but so really, really rarely.

But otherwise, I think it’s really important to set up an out of office email that clearly delegates things and makes sure that you will not respond. That’s what I expect as well. I mean, it’s important for me to be on vacation. It’s important for my team to be on vacation. And there are situations where people offer to, for example, do something which…

you know, would spend, other people would spend two or three days while they can just check within 50 minutes or 30 minutes. So they do offer to check or during their vacation something or to be, so there are exceptions, but these are agreed exceptions, there is not expectations and therefore, if you prefer or if you, if your understanding of vacation is to be really off, then…

be really off and don’t get distracted by emails or checking emails and things. I mean, people tend to think that the life doesn’t go on without them. It does, even if it’s only for two or three people. Yes, it is. It’s a work surprising me. Exactly. I mean, I understand that people do take care about their work and they are responsible for their work and so on. And that’s all fine.

Vacations are vacations and I think everyone needs the time off. Yeah, to actually work effectively afterwards again. I think that’s the whole point. Also, I think especially for managers, it’s important to step back from time to time because that actually is also an opportunity for team members to step up.

And I think by being constantly on emails, managers don’t give these opportunities to team members. There’s one last point I would like to make regarding incoming emails.

It should be the exception, but sometimes it happens. People just don’t get rid of the emails. The flood is so big and it’s coming faster than you can work on them. You’re completely overwhelmed and I have been there.

in your inbox. At one point, there’s a time where it actually makes sense to declare email bankruptcy. Have you heard about this term before? I heard about it. Yes. It’s quite extreme cuts that you’re here. But go on. Yeah. But I think at a certain point, that’s the only option you have left. Basically to say,

all these old unread emails, I move them into one folder and I say, this is old emails. And now I start back with inbox zero and move on from there and just kind of hope that all the really emergent things come back. And usually they do. They do. And so, and then if you…

But at least moving on from that point, you can better manage your email. But sometimes things happen at work and you get completely overwhelmed. Too many projects come at the same time and people are leaving the company and just turn over. It’s just chaos in these situations.

these things are probably the only way out. I was never actually in that situation but usually my way of before declaring bankruptcy is to spend one day between New Year and Christmas in the office and only do the emails at the end of the year cleaning my inbox. That’s what I usually try to do and it’s working very well actually because there’s no distraction on the other side.

So there’s nobody calling you. There’s nobody coming in. This is really you’re the only one in the office usually. And so you can spend a full day of cleaning your inbox and that helps and lasts at least half a year. So that’s good. That’s good. Anyway, okay. I think we will have a next chat about writing the emails and the next episode. So for today, we thank you for listening.

and we will be back soon with another topic on writing emails. Thanks. See you later. We thank PSI for sponsoring this show. Thanks for listening. Please visit thee to find the show notes and learn more about our podcast to boost your career as a statistician in the health sector. If you enjoyed the show, please tell your colleagues about it.

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