This article was first published in the November/December 2016 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

In any working week many of us spend up to 20% of our time processing emails. In many cases workflow is simply being pushed around the organisation for no tangible gain. Here are some ideas on how to get a better balance: 

  • Never open emails before 10.30am. In the good old days, we would handle post at 10.30am when it arrived from the post room. Now, the first thing we do is open our inboxes and suddenly an hour has evaporated. Some of us get interrupted every time a new email arrives. Switch off the alerts and dip in and out of emails after specific tasks have been achieved.
  • You are not Barack Obama so don’t live and sleep with your smartphone. Most of us are not heart surgeons or heads of state; our work is not critical to life. Many emails we handle have little or no relevance to where we or our organisations want to go. It is particularly sad when it becomes a part of the culture for senior managers to text each other about Monday’s schedule during the TV advert breaks on Sunday night. I may send the odd email on a wet Sunday afternoon but I never expect it to be read until business hours.
  • The five-sentence rule. Treat all email responses like text messages or tweets and limit their length. With only five sentences, for example, the writer has to be succinct.
  • Have an attention-grabbing header. Make the header the main message of the email – for example, ‘Freeing up more time – migrating our invoice system’. If you cannot think of a good email header, maybe you should not send the email. 
  • Actively terminate email exchanges. If a topic is pinging to and fro and becoming increasingly complex, a phone call is a much more efficient solution. Think about the desired outcome and promote a course of action to avoid the ‘table tennis’. If necessary, say ‘No more emails on this one, thank you’. 
  • Before you send a complaint/rebuff, sleep on it. 
    For complex responses, save your draft overnight. Many a career has been dented by a poorly thought out email written in anger. 
  • Monkey-on-the-back emails. Many people use email to pass their workload on. They contact known experts and ask for their help without having done any research themselves – passing the monkey on their back to the expert. A colleague of mine, an internationally recognised expert, advised me that the best way is to politely thank the sender for the email and then say ‘Please call when convenient to discuss’. In his experience, this gets rid of 95% of the requests. 

David Parmenter is a writer and presenter on measuring, monitoring and managing performance