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How to deal with unwanted emails

Back in February 2011, Thierry Breton, the CEO of Atos Origin (a large IT services firm) made a pledge to eliminate internal corporate email 100 per cent from his company by the year 2014. At the time, many people from the technology and business worlds alike scoffed at his announcement. They called his plan ridiculous. They said we need email. We rely on it. It's necessary!

Fast forward to today, and the climate has already changed. I hear more and more from office workers that email is the bane of their existence. It's as much a waste of their time as the dreaded 'm' word: Meetings.

When I ask why it's such a burden, people typically say something like "I get tons of emails that have nothing to do with me," or "Half the threads I'm on aren't relevant to my work at all." I even started hearing the same sentiment from a few people about personal email: "I get nine follow up emails from members of my book club confirming the next book club date! Hello, people! It was in the first email!"

Here are some strategies for actually trimming down on emails you don’t need, or effectively cutting them off at the pass. (While this article does not cover greymail, I have plenty of other tips for how to manage email newsletters and daily deals here).

1. Ask to be removed from group emails, face-to-face

The more we rely on email, the more likely we are to forget that some problems are best handled with a brief conversation. This advice may sound crazy and very low tech, but it can be extremely effective. If you're part of a regular group email (say, a daily report or weekly project check-in) and don't want to be anymore, have a conversation with the person who manages or initiates that email, preferably face-to-face, or over the phone if you must. "Hi," you'll say, "You know that daily email about such-and-such? Am I supposed to be on it? I keep getting messages, but they never actually relate directly to me or my work. Do you think you could remove me?"

The worst thing you could do in this situation is reply to all with a message reading "unsubscribe." It's rude. It shows you don't have any social tact or “netitquette.” And it proves you don't know how to manage your own email.

When you have a conversation face-to-face, though, you become human again. You're a pleasant person with a reasonable and straightforward request. And, if there is a reason you're meant to receive the messages, the person will explain why you've been included to date.

2. Leverage social networks, PM tools, and IM

In my opinion, social networks (including business networks such as Yammer) handle opt-in messaging much better than email does. Take the case of my friend who was grousing about her book club. If the organiser had set up the next book club meeting invitation on Facebook rather than via email, getting the information would have felt less obligatory for the members. Facebook events are optional. You can get to them and digest the information when you feel like it. When the same event invitation arrives via email, reading it immediately feels mandatory.

In business organisations, alternative communication tools can also help cut down on unwanted emails tremendously. In the office here, we tend to use an instant messaging program when we have something to communicate quickly and want an equally quick response. We use Yammer to manage some tasks that operate on a "whoever can answer first, please do" basis. We use the project management (PM) platform Basecamp to house discussions about on-going art and design projects in one place.

So use all the different tools at your disposal, and if you are in a management position, encourage others to do so as well. Advocating a multi-tool solution will help reduce unnecessary emails.

3. Use automated sorting or filters

The most common solution for managing unwanted emails is to set up automated sorting rules, or filters as they're sometimes called, that put the unwanted messages into a designated place (usually a folder, but sometimes the trash) before they even hit your inbox. All the major email programs have this feature.

Find the email you don't want anymore, identify something concrete and fixed about it (for example, the fact that it’s always the same keyword in the subject line, sender, etc.) and set up a rule that sorts all those messages into a new and appropriately labelled folder for you.

Another option in Microsoft Outlook is that you can "unsubscribe" gracefully and without notice from a thread by simply "muting" a conversation (see my tips on Outlook for how to do this), although that leaves you stuck if anyone reuses the same subject line at a later date, as it's the target for carrying out the operation. (In other words, when you mute a thread, Outlook automatically moves any messages containing the same subject line of the offending email to the "deleted items" folder).

I personally don't use automated sorting very much because it relies on a new behaviour: Checking the designated folders on a regular basis. In the past, whenever I have set up sorting, I immediately forgot that I did so and, several days later, noticed a pile of emails that may have included something important pushed to the wayside. I'd rather just delete unwanted messages as I receive them. If you do choose this route, just be diligent about processing those sorted emails on a regular basis.

4. Tell people not to write back with "thanks"

The first time I overheard a colleague at a former job say out loud to another colleague: "Would you mind not replying with 'thanks' to a message when all it does is confirm that you know I did the thing I was supposed to do? It'll help me keep down my email time” – it blew my mind! You can say that? Sure, you might come off as slightly grumpy, but the upside is you won't get a ton of truly unnecessary email messages.

You could also rephrase it to be supremely passive-aggressive – "I really won't be offended if thank me less often via email. I already know you appreciate my work" – but I don't recommend it!