A Leadership Dilemma: The Very Real Problem of Email Overwhelm

Article by , May 8, 2018

Not long ago, I began working with Mark, the newly appointed Vice President of R&D for a rapidly growing medical device company. Still quite new to the role and the company, Mark was energized and excited… but also overwhelmed. He needed my help focusing on priorities, creating boundaries, and navigating the complexities of his new job, disorganized team, demanding boss, and the dozens of important stakeholders with whom he had to rapidly establish credibility, trust, and communication—the foundations of a strong working relationship.

At the same time, Mark had several high-profile projects to quickly advance. And in the midst of all that, literally hundreds of emails cluttered his inbox each day.

To deal with the seemingly endless influx of emails, he would begin his workday before sunrise and dedicate the first 2 hours of the day to clearing his inbox. He’d send replies where needed and scroll through a virtual sea of “FYI” messages. Needless to say, this took a great deal of time and often pulled him away from more important matters.

Mark believed his early morning email routine was a necessary sacrifice, the only way to create time and space for the rest of his daily activities. But it simply wasn’t sustainable. He was getting by on less than 5 hours of sleep each night, fueling up on a diet of coffee and granola bars, growing impatient with his team, and increasingly stressed by daily challenges.

To help him gain control, I taught Mark my straightforward approach to mastering e-mail overwhelm. I call it TERS, for Targeted Email Reduction System. Mark quickly applied the system and, as a result, was able to enjoy an extra hour of sleep each night. With more rest, he began to arrive at work with greater energy, focus, and patience. He made better decisions, built stronger relationships, and led his team to outstanding results.

Targeted Email Reduction System (TERS)

There are two main components to my TERS system. You’ll need just a little time to set it up. Trust me, it is time well spent. By teaching your stakeholders how to best communicate with you, you will free up time for more strategic pursuits, increase your energy and focus, and maybe even enjoy an extra hour or two of sleep at night.

Here’s how it works.

  1. Ask for a Headline. Talk to your team, colleagues, business partners… anybody from whom you regularly receive email. Explain to them that you are trying to be more efficient with your time and more effective in the way you respond. Subject lines should clearly convey whether an email is purely informational or asking for a response, urgent or not, and so on.
  2. Set Clear Parameters. Decide how often you will check your email. Do not simply check email continually throughout the day. Then give your manager, team, colleagues, and clients a way to reach you for urgent matters. I call this “calling the Batphone”. Your unique Batphone might be a call to your mobile, a text, or an SOS to your assistant or delegate. Whichever method you choose, be sure you’ve developed clarity and mutual agreement around what is genuinely urgent and what can wait. Get clear on what’s best communicated over email and what’s better addressed by phone or in person. You will immediately decrease email overwhelm when you convey limits and set parameters on your inbox.

These steps will get you started on creating a more efficient and effective way to address email overwhelm. See Chapter 5 in my book, Slow Down to Speed Up: Lead, Succeed, and Thrive in a 24/7 World, for full details.

To learn about the ways I’m helping executives and their teams be more strategic in their communication, improve collaboration, protect time, and accelerate impact, check out my all-new website, www.lizbywater.com. Or send me an email liz@lizybwater.com. I’d love to hear from you!