Scanning email takes patience and practice


This past Monday, I counted the email in my in-box from the weekend. There were 138 received between late Friday night (when I stopped reading) and early Monday morning. This doesn’t count junk and spam.

Ok. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot.

On a typical weekday, I receive 100-plus emails, and on busy days, it’s double that. I’ve spoken with friends and colleagues who receive far more on busy days.

Imagine being an editor for a newspaper, receiving an endless stream of email announcements about community events, concerts and lectures, and bake sales.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, we spend about 28 percent of our workday reading and replying to email. Of course, that percentage varies greatly depending on your industry and job.

And then there are those of us who manage multiple email accounts. Last count puts the email addresses I maintain at 12.

Beyond my personal Gmail account, I also manage a work address and several organization email accounts. Some get more attention than others, and some get ignored for days at a time. There isn’t enough time to read it all.

Like many of my friends who manage multiple accounts, I’m accessing different email management platforms throughout the day – Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Microsoft Outlook – and on multiple devices (laptops, desktops, smartphones).

Don’t get me started on messaging apps (i.e., Facebook Messenger) and texting. That’s a column topic for another day.

Anyone who receives this volume of email will tell you that it feels incredibly overwhelming.

“Sorry I didn’t see your email. It’s a losing battle,” a colleague lamented this week when I asked if he had time to read my email. “Sifting through it all to find what’s important? What’s urgent? I’m drowning in email.”

I told him that scanning has become a go-to strategy for “reading” it all. Most of us are very good at scanning our in-boxes, looking for keywords or phrases, familiar email addresses and names that we deem important enough to open.

According to digital marketing expert Lon Safko, the average person spends 2.5 seconds scanning an email. For some, it takes a split-second to determine the worth of an email based on sender and subject line.

Our email scanning skills have to be precise, but they also have to be adaptable. We have to know when to choose other communication channels.

Marketing consultant and creative strategist Annabel Acton notes that we have options for staying ahead of it. Her suggestions for cutting through the clutter include:

Blocking out time each day just for reading email, but avoid the urge to read email at other times.

Only reading and react to an email once; don’t save it for later.

Knowing when email isn’t always the best response option; try calling or sending a video message.

Adam Earnheardt is chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn and on his blog at www.adamearn.com.

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