I don’t care what anyone says, email isn’t dead.
Despite chat and video conferencing apps like Slack, Teams, and Zoom promising to rid us of the tyranny of the inbox, email use hasn’t declined. In fact, when we conducted research for a recent Vox article, we found that people are spending almost the same amount of time on messaging as they did 6 years ago!
Keeping up with communication has become a full-time job, leaving us with little time to do the work we were hired to do (and that our performance is judged on).
Yet the problem isn’t just that we’re receiving more emails than ever (even though we are). It’s that we feed the beast by answering every email, checking our inboxes at all hours, and not setting expectations and boundaries around our email time.
Luckily, some of the best tools you have for setting email expectations are right in your inbox. Let’s look at how you can use your email signature, out of office message, email templates, and more to set better boundaries.
Inbox overload is a prioritization issue. Not a communication issue.
Email is still one of the best workplace tools we have. Until you have too much of it.
The near-instant nature of your inbox means it’s too easy to shoot off a message the second you have a question or CC ten colleagues on a simple request.
This is because we see email as “fast and free,” as startup advisor Sarah K. Peck writes in Harvard Business Review. It only takes a second or two to check our own inbox and quickly reply.
Here are a few scary email statistics to illustrate this point:
- 132 billion business emails are sent every day
- 84% of people keep their inboxes open all day long
- 70% of emails are opened within 6 seconds of receiving them
- Most people check their email and chat apps every 6 minutes or less
Instead of focusing on our most important work, we’re spending all day monitoring and adding to a non-stop influx of messages, requests, and (often) meaningless banter.
It’s no wonder email makes us feel stressed, scattered, and unfocused. As Peck writes:
“Sending messages speedily makes us think we’re important instead of taking time to really chew on ideas, and it punts work onto other people’s agendas rather than asking us to figure things out ourselves.”
What Peck gets at is the awkward truth about email: it’s often just another distraction.
Being busy and being productive are two very different things. And if you want to make time to do your most important work, you need to set boundaries and expectations around how you handle your email.
5 ways to set better email boundaries
Most advice on handling communication time suggests that you deal with your inbox in batches. Rather than check your inbox all day, bundling all your communication time into one or two 30-minute batches leaves you more time to focus.
The problem is that this method is one-sided. Your team or clients don’t know you’re only checking messages once or twice a day. And so they expect a prompt response.
In fact, when we surveyed hundreds of knowledge workers, 63.5% of people said they expect an email response within an hour. Yet, only 25% had ever spoken to a teammate or manager about this expectation!
To control your inbox, you need to set boundaries. Here are a few ways to get started:
1. Use your out of office message to set response-time expectations
Setting an out of office message is one of the best parts of going on vacation. It lets people know that you’ll be away and they shouldn’t expect a response until you’re back (or not at all).
So why not use that same technique to set expectations during the workweek?
An out of office message can be configured to tell the sender you’re currently focusing on a project and will only be checking emails at specific times. It can also tell people outside your company that certain requests will be ignored.
Not only does this set expectations of when you’ll respond, but knowing you’ve set them alleviates the FOMO that causes you to check your inbox every few minutes.
How to set up an out of office message in Outlook and Gmail
Pretty much every email client will allow you to set up an out of office message. Let’s look at two of the most common:
- Outlook: Select File > Automatic Replies and then Send automatic replies. You can then choose what dates your out of office message will be sent and create different messages for people inside or outside your organization.
- Gmail: Select Settings > Vacation responder and turn it on. You can then choose when the out of office message will be sent, the content, and whether you want it to go to just people within your organization or everyone.
2. Update your email signature to include when and how you answer emails
Your email signature is another opportunity to set expectations and boundaries around email response time. Use the space to write a short explanation that tells people how long it typically takes you to respond and what your office hours are.
What’s great about this method is that it’s a constant reminder to everyone that you’re being conscious about your email time.
How to change your email signature in Outlook and Gmail
Creating an email signature is simple in both Gmail and Outlook:
- Outlook: Open a new email and select Message > Signature > Select signature to edit and then choose New. You can now name your signature and edit it including links and images.
- Gmail: Select Settings > Signature and then create your signature. Make sure to hit Save Changes at the bottom of the page before you leave.
3. Set up multiple inboxes to separate your most important messages
Studies say that the average knowledge worker gets about 126 emails a day. But not all emails are equal. Many of the messages that make their way into your inbox can be ignored either entirely or put off until a later date.
However, basic inbox settings make all your messages look like the have the same level of priority. Not only does this make it harder to parse your inbox quickly, but it also means you’re constantly bombarded with new messages.
Instead, you need a way to set your own expectations and separate the important emails from the fluff that doesn’t need to be dealt with.
To do this, RescueTime CEO Robby Macdonell suggests using labels and a separate inbox to set apart important from non-urgent messages.
He calls this his “processing” list. Once or twice a day he goes through a simple routine:
- Quickly scan your regular inbox and add the label @processing to any messages that need your attention
- Collapse your normal inbox so you can’t see new incoming emails
- Focus only on the @processing list without worrying that it will keep filling up
While this doesn’t necessarily change how other people think about email expectations, it’s a great way to create boundaries for yourself and not get sucked into answering every message that comes in.
4. Use email templates to triage requests and tell people what emails will be ignored
It’s impossible to ignore emails all day long. And in order to slow down the influx of follow-ups, it’s important to be able to quickly respond to common requests.
Creating a set of canned responses—or email templates—can help you quickly get through common emails and set expectations and responses.
Once you have your inbox properly setup, it’s time to create your templates. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
1. Setting expectations about a response to a question
Thanks so much for getting in touch.
I just wanted to let you know that I’m looking into it and will get back to you before [end of day/end of the week] with an answer.
If this is urgent, let me know and I’ll try to get back to you sooner.
All the best,
2. Getting rid of low-priority work
Thanks for thinking of me for this project. Unfortunately, my schedule is completely full for the next few weeks.
However, I have a [co-worker/colleague] who has helped me with this sort of work in the past. I’d be happy to reach out to them and see if they have time.
How does this sound?
3. Change expectations about an internal request for information
Check out this [Trello board, Google doc, etc…]. It’s pretty extensive and should be able to answer most of your questions about [Problem].
All the best,
5. Lead by example
One of the best ways to change expectations around email is to simply lead by example.
When we interviewed more than 700 professionals about their email habits, we found that if you check and respond to emails outside of work hours, your team will too.
Even if you don’t mind checking email in the evening or on weekends, answering them during those times shows the respondent that there are no boundaries.
Instead, try to limit your own emailing to work hours. You can schedule emails right in Gmail or use a tool like Streak or Boomerang to delay your responses. If you want to make it more of a team discussion, make a timeline for your team to follow that tells them when it’s OK (and not) to communicate.
Finally, setting expectations isn’t just about when you send emails, but also how you write them. Misunderstandings or missing information lead to more emails. And so the easiest way to get fewer emails is to send better ones.
This comes down to following a few simple rules:
- Use a subject line that informs, summarizes, and inspires action
- Don’t bury the lede. Start with why the reader should care.
- Follow the “SSA” of email body copy: Short, scannable, and actionable.
- Banish jargon and use natural language
- Use clear action items when emailing with multiple people
For more help, check out our in-depth guide on how to write a professional email.
Bonus for managers: Set communication guidelines for your team
As a final note, if you’re a manager or a leader, you’re in an especially powerful position to change expectations and set boundaries. This is as simple as clearly creating a communication plan with your team and clients.
As Sarah Peck writes in Harvard Business Review:
“When adding new members to your team, taking on new clients, or even starting a new project, specify how and when you like to be communicated with, and ask your colleagues and clients their preferences as well. Get specific about your channels, style, and availability.”
A few minutes to set expectations can alter the way your team communicates for the better.
Master your inbox and you’ll master your day
You weren’t hired to be a full-time emailer. So why allow your inbox into all aspects of your day?
By setting clear expectations around what emails you’ll answer (and which ones you’ll ignore), having specific times set for checking your inbox (and explaining when people should expect a response), and prioritizing only your most important messages, you can transform email from a firehose to a water fountain.
Read more about how to control your time spent on email
- Email like a CEO: How to get through 500+ emails in a day (without going crazy)
- Does your inbox make you sweat? Here’s how to get a handle on email overload
- Forget Inbox Zero: Here’s how to actually understand and optimize your email time every day
- 10 email canned responses that will save you hours each week
- How to write a professional email in 2019: The best advice from executives, coaches (and even military experts)
- The Email Etiquette Playbook: We asked 700+ workers how to write a professional email