Unwanted Email: Did You Want That Email?

Email is perhaps one of the biggest contributing factors to information overload for many people.  It has become the standard approach for communication, providing a record that contact was attempted and evidence, though unreliable, of whether the communication was reciprocated.  This blog explores unwanted email and how to deal with the information you want or need.

Common Causes of Unwanted Email

Email pushes information to a person, whether they want it or not.  Unwanted email often comes from:

  1. SPAM: Most email systems should filter SPAM email before it gets to the inbox.
  2. Subscriptions: At some point you may have unwittingly signed-up to monthly, weekly or daily subscription emails when enquiring about a product or service.
  3. Cc’d: Courtesy copies of emails should be just that, a courtesy copy, to confirm an action or to provide information for future reference. The facility is often abused as a form of bullying, either by using the ‘threat of a superior’ or the ‘threat of the masses’ in the form of incitement.

Other Types of Email

One of the reasons inboxes become full and the feeling of information overload occurs is that even when email is read it is often left in the inbox to deal with later.  Dealing with an email the first time it is read, helps to avoid becoming overwhelmed by it.  If it can be deleted, delete it, do not allow it to take up any more of your time or space.  Other types of email can be dealt with in similar way, for example:

  • Dates for the calendar: Accept or decline the appointment immediately. This removes the weight of decision and allows both you and the sender of the appointment to move on.
  • Requests for information: If the information can be provided quickly (in under two minutes), provide the information and delete the email. If the request is going to take longer to address, add the action to a ‘to do’ list and move the email to a ‘to do’ folder. The email has been dealt with and is no longer contributing to information overload.
  • Requests for tasks to be completed: Send a response confirming that the task has been noted, add the task to a ‘to do list’ and move the email to a ‘to do’ folder.
  • Circulated documents: Email is often used as a means of transmitting documents such as newsletters or policy information. The first decision to make is whether to read it immediately (for example, if it is a short news bulletin) or whether to read it later (for example, a multiple page report).  If the email is to be kept to be read later, move it to a ‘to read’ file and make a note on the ‘to do’ list about what needs to be read.  The second decision to make is whether the information needs to be retained, or whether it can be accessed via other organizational systems when needed.  If the documents sent in the email are needed, the documents should be detached from the email, saved separately and the email deleted.

Moving emails from the inbox to other folders does not mean that you are replacing the problem of a full inbox with the problem of a full ‘to do’ folder.  By moving the email you have dealt with it through an initial triage, identified the actions that need to be taken and scheduled the actions into your workload (such as completing a task or reading a large document).  The problem of information overload has been addressed as the information communicated in the email has been actioned appropriately.

Psychology of Email

Although people complain about the large number of emails they have to deal with, specific email personalities can emerge.  For example:

  1. Just in Case: “I keep every email just in case I need it and I like looking back at historic emails to remind colleagues of what has been said.”
  2. Importance: “I spend hours every night going through emails because I am so important that I get hundreds each day.”
  3. Busyness: “I am so busy, I have all these emails to deal with.”
  4. Excuse: “I haven’t done x, I haven’t got to your email yet.”
  5. Boastful: “I have x thousand emails.”
  6. Overwhelmed: “I just can’t get through all my email.”
  7. Avoidance: “I can’t do x as I have to get through all these emails first.”

How to Reduce Unwanted Email

Unwanted email can be reduced in a number of ways, for example:

  1. Use SPAM filtering tools to automatically remove unwanted email.
  2. Unsubscribe to newsletters or use filtering tools to move them automatically into a separate folder to review at a convenient time.
  3. Report email abuse through the appropriate channels in the organization.
  4. Ensure that the organization has policies in place relating to the appropriate use of email.
  5. Provide training to staff on the appropriate use of email.
  6. Email links to where documents can be accessed, rather than circulating documents via email.

One of the problems with email is that it does not stop.  Emails are continually sent to your inbox twenty-four hours a day.  You therefore need to take control of how you use the inbox, by setting aside time to focus on reading and responding to email, and by setting time aside when you do not look at your email but focus on other tasks.  The majority of email is sent from someone so before you press ‘send’, think are you sending an unwanted email and contributing to the information overload of others?

Further Reading:  Information overload is discussed in Chapter 7 and use of email is discussed in Chapter 10.


Please use the following to reference this blog post in your own work:

Cox, S. A., (2015), ’Unwanted Email: Did You Want That Email?’, 24 April 2015, http://www.managinginformation.org/unwanted-email/, [Date accessed: dd:mm:yy]

© 2014 Sharon A Cox