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Drowning in emails? Here’s how to survive

Workers spend on average 2.6 hours of their work day reading and answering more than 100 emails which largely should not be read or sent in the first place.

Email is one of the most common forms of communication yet also one of the most misused by workers who use it for everything from avoiding conversations in person to  distributing business critical information.

While other technologies such as social media, video chat and instant messaging have been introduced, emails continue to be the main source of electronic communication. It leads to workers spending 28 per cent of their workday caught up reading and typing responses to email, the McKinsey Global Institute finds. Email use is no longer limited to office workers, with it increasingly becoming a staple for organisations to communicate with trades workers and contractors out in the field.

Leadership Management Australasia’s Leadership, Employment and Direction (L.E.A.D) Survey director Adrian Goldsmith says email use is more widespread today than a decade ago but for some has become all-consuming. “It’s a net positive – but you’ve just got to control it,” he says.


Statistics from technology market research firm The Radicati Group show 108.7 billion emails were sent and received for business reasons each day in 2014. It equals an average of 121 emails for each worker. By 2018, it will increase to more than 139.4 billion emails in total, or an average of 140 emails for each worker. Yet most employees believe they can only comfortably deal with about 50 emails a day, a survey by Harris Interactive reveals.

Learn how to use IT

Most workers use less than 10 per cent of the capability of their email system because they have not got around to learning how to use the features, Goldsmith says. Sorting emails into fields, task lists, filters, level of importance and other settings can dramatically affect inbox organisation and therefore productivity. “It helps people go through their day in a more systematic way,” he says.


Email doesn’t always have to be the first task of the day. Goldsmith says doing so immediately feeds unproductive behaviour that flows through the day. He suggests not opening emails until 10am – if possible – and using the first part of the day to get essential work done. “A lot of people don’t plan their days, then get busy and strung out and unproductive because they don’t have a plan for the day,” he says. “Start out with a plan (and if you get knocked off it) you’ve got something to fall back to.”

Write it right

Workers can get frustrated when others don’t respond to their emails, while others get stuck reading those that aren’t important. Goldsmith says whether a worker’s name is in the To or CC field can and should affect whether they read it. “If you want me to act on it, put my name in the box marked for your attention, rather than for your interest,” he says. “Send the signal to people that if you want them to reply, put their name in the read box.” But some are reading too much. “A lot of people read the CCs automatically and lose hours during the day,” he says. “For some people, they are getting 100 to 200 emails a day and a quarter or half of these they are CCed into rather than addressed to. They are reading other people’s stuff.”

When people communicate, only 10 per cent of what is understood comes from the words being said, with 30 per cent coming from tone and 60 per cent non-verbal language – meaning written communication can be easy to misconstrue, Goldsmith says. “It’s very hard to impart the full message. It needs to be short, sharp, have an action approach, and it should have a clear indication of what the email is about. It needs a reasonably punchy subject line , otherwise it’ll get into the whitewash,” he says.

Use it wisely

Many workers feel that if they’ve sent an email, they have communicated the message. “Some people think email is great because you don’t have to talk to people,” Goldsmith says. “If they can avoid having these conversations, email is a convenient way of doing it. But for a lot of organisations, it’s a handbrake (that stops productivity). An all-staff email may have little thought why some people shouldn’t receive it.” If there’s a need to communicate a personal or confidential matter, or one that needs a human touch, face-to-face or over the phone is better.

Turn it off

Turn off automatic alerts and limit how often the inbox is checked – unless it’s urgent.




  • Email is effective to send documents, one message to many people and formal communication requiring a paper trail
  • The best emails are short, concise and quickly read


  • Most senders can only assume the recipient has read it. A read receipt can only confirm email has been opened
  • Many senders do not know it has been read until what is outlined has been actioned


  • Email is poorly used when an immediate response is required, confidential information discussed, and when the message can be misconstrued
  • If responses go back and forth two or three times, phone or discuss face to face

Article from The Courier Mail newspaper on January 10, 2015