Sunday 22 June 2014 11:48 pm

How to take the stress out of emails

Follow the OHIO principle and don’t get sucked into the black hole of perpetual filing

Email was supposed to make life easier. But low-cost electronic communication has left some office workers drowning in a swamp of irrelevant messages. According to a recent study by technology research firm The Radicati Group, the average office worker receives around 100 emails each day, and a University of Toronto study claimed that around 12 per cent of an average company’s payroll is taken up by the unproductive use of email. Combine this with the risk of mistaken cc’s and accidental “reply all” storms, and it’s no wonder that some are longing for the days of the carrier pigeon.

One option is to cut it out entirely. The government’s chief operating officer reportedly instituted a one-day-a-week internal email ban for the Cabinet Office last year. But while this may work for some civil servants, we can’t all afford to be unreachable for an entire day. Here are three ways to minimise the time-sapping effects of email without leaving yourself out of the loop.

According to Robert Pozen, author of Extreme Productivity, the key to the efficient use of email is the “only handle it once” (OHIO) principle. When a message lands in your inbox, decide immediately whether it requires a response or not, and take action straight away. He reckons that around 80 per cent of the emails he receives don’t require a response at all, and that putting things on the back-burner (“I’ll return to that one a bit later”), just wastes time and mental energy. He should know. Posen taught a full lecture series at Harvard Business School while serving as full-time chairman of MFS Investment Management.

Others argue that some replies require a more considered response, but Pozen says it’s important not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Email isn’t necessarily the best medium for getting your points across  – it may be better to follow-up with a conversation or meeting if it’s extremely important.

Most will be familiar with the soul-destroying experience of deciphering a colleague’s confusing, convoluted email. And a 2005 study by a team at Carnegie Mellon University confirms the obvious: when it comes to email, simplicity wins. They found that people are far more likely to respond to emailed requests for information when they were easy to address, and that long, complex messages often didn’t get a reply. More “social messages”, meanwhile, also got a higher response rate because they are perceived as “fun”.

Short, snappy, fun messages are quicker to write, and sticking to this format could save you the time of constantly chasing up replies.

The “inbox zero” movement saw office workers the world over obsessively sorting, filing, and deleting messages in an effort to achieve that Holy Grail of email management – the empty inbox. But the technique has come in for some slack in recent years, with Harvard Business Review editor Sarah Green asking, “how can a person who barely has time to read her email possibly have time to sort it?”

Instead, the latest trend is to use automatic filters. They come in a few different varieties. Some mail systems (like Gmail) have native filters built-in – you can search emails “from:John Smith”, and create a filter to automatically file them somewhere. But there are also options that use algorithms to decide what’s important (based on the content and sender), and only allow such messages through. Green suggests SaneBox, which is customisable, and files unimportant messages into a “SaneLater” folder.

Get a slick email interface: Boxer £6.99

The default email management apps on most smartphones broadly do the job. But a growing pool of techies are turning to souped-up versions to boost their productivity. Boxer runs all major email providers and allows you to quickly archive, “like”, delete, and add labels to messages. It also syncs with to-do lists, and can be password protected.