Drowning in Email? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I know you have heard it before, but I just don’t know what to do about the amount of email I get. I cannot possibly attend to it all.

I am constantly showing up at meetings and facing the question “Did you read my email?”

The answer is almost always no, but people expect me to be up to speed and I am embarrassed. I am pretty sure that if I really spent the time I need to deal with email, it would take another 3 hours—and I am already working 10- to 12-hour days.

My team feels the same way, yet we continue to drown.


Dear Drowning,

I have heard it—a lot—and I am right there with you. Just when I think I have it figured out, I am once again way behind. And god forbid you come down with the flu and are out of commission for a few days. I don’t know about you, but more business messages are now coming via social media and text, adding to the pileup.

You don’t say what level you are in your organization, so it is hard to tell how much power you might have to affect organizational email policy. You can certainly raise the issue with the powers that be to make that happen, as many organizations have. But you do have immediate control over your team, so I highly recommend you start there. Get together and brainstorm some team protocols to help you manage the onslaught. Examples are:

  • Make sure that all email communication is somehow connected to team’s goals and outcomes.
  • Use interoffice IM for quick questions.
  • When possible, use the subject line to get the message across; e.g., Blue Team not required at Thursday staff meeting; details upon request.
  • Use the subject line to indicate level of urgency; e.g., ACTION NEEDED for Friday’s presentation; or FYI only; or URGENT: 12-hour deadline.
  • Only send email to the people who really need it. Step away from the cc and the reply all.
  • Use your Out of Office when you have a day of back-to-back meetings to manage expectations.
  • Find ways to shorten emails to get salient points across efficiently. At Blanchard, we use “ABC” and it works really well: Action Needed, Background, Conclusion. Do not send an email unless you can boil down your thoughts into 3 lines.

There are a lot of great ideas in The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before it Manages You, and of course there are other excellent books. The thing is that we are all in this mess together and we can agree on some ways to cope that will serve all of us. As the leader of your team, you can take a stand.

You can make your own rules, too, and share them with your team. I work with someone who has made it clear that he will not read anything on which he is cc’d. His staff expected him to stay abreast of all their dealings by reading everything he was cc’d on, and finally he asked everyone to compile a quick list of everything they think he needed to know and send it along once a week.

So put some method to madness. You can do it. In the meantime, stop blaming yourself and being embarrassed. If you haven’t read an email, the answer is, “Nope, haven’t gotten to it, sorry.” I guarantee you aren’t the only one.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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