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Set boundaries for your work and your email to avoid burning out

Managers at Work
Rochester Business Journal
June 3, 2011

"I work in a management role for a small non-profit that can't afford to give us raises, so I work a second job, too. Now I can't keep up with all the emails I have to do for my main job. The word 'overload' doesn't even begin to describe this. Help!"
With two jobs, it's very, very difficult to keep up. As you already know, if you can't find a way to manage your time and energy, at least to some extent, the potential for burnout and health problems will increase significantly.
"What happens is we go into this downward spiral over time," says Judy Martin, an author and founder of "You have to break the cycle somewhere."
You're not exactly alone in your worries about work and making ends meet. The American Psychological Association's 2010 study on stress indicated that money (78 percent), work (70 percent) and the economy (65 percent) are the most frequently cited sources of stress for Americans. And nearly half (49 percent) of adults said job stability was a source of stress in 2010, up from 44 percent in 2009.
So whether it's getting a handle on email, letting some tasks go, setting clearer boundaries with employees or family, you need to find small ways to reduce the stress.
Martin, author of the e-book "7 Tools to Reduce Stress in the Work-Life Merge," suggests that you start by putting yourself in a kind of "boot camp" for developing the skills to manage some kind of work-life balance. That means doing a "work-life assessment" to figure out your priorities and where your time is really going. Is it going to the first job? The second? Or to your in-box?
Don't have time for this analysis? She suggests that you actually set aside time to schedule your day. "You have to schedule time to make time," she says.
If managing email is a big part of the problem, and it sounds as if it is, be sure to schedule some "non-negotiable" time for administrative tasks, which for you means managing email.
During that protected period, establish some firm rules for handling email. Martin suggests the two-minute respond-file-delete approach. "If you can respond to the email in less than two minutes, great. If not, file or archive it," she says.
If a response requires a meeting or a phone conversation, respond with a specific time when you would be available-without offering a selection of choices, which only complicates the problem.
"We have this buffet of information in front of us, coming from so many different sources; we take it all in, and we don't filter it," she says. "So we fall into the cycle of unlimited information, perceptions about availability, the expectation that everyone is going to deliver right away and your own desire to deliver."
Don't hesitate to set the limits that you might not have set before. "We don't like to say no. But you can sensitively share your boundaries with others," she says. "You can ask them, for example, to 'please call between 6 and 9 this evening.'"
With two-minute limits and some quick archiving and filing, you can begin to cut through some of the clutter. If people are sending you copies of emails with information that's urgent or important, ask them to make note of it in the subject line, so you can read it efficiently, Martin says.
If you regularly receive information on sponsorships, service inquiries or other specific subjects for your non-profit, make sure they go to separate email accounts that you check separately at other times. "You have to create your own email rules and boundaries," Martin says.
Jonathan Spira, author of "Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous to Your Organization," says that if you analyze the contents of your in-box, chances are you will find emails on subjects that could have been handled more efficiently with a quick phone call or another communication method. "If your team uses instant messaging, that is a great way to quickly ask questions and get responses without interrupting," he says. "Email is not always the best way to communicate, so consider other tools you may have."
He suggests taking care to be clear in emails. "Most emails go largely unread. It is only the first few lines that generally make much of an impact. Being clear and concise, (and encouraging others to do the same) greatly cuts down on long, drawn-out, back-and-forth email exchanges," Spira says.
He also suggests setting an example in your office. "Sending fewer emails yourself is one of the best ways to cut down on the amount of email you receive. Avoid gratuitous messages that just say 'thanks' or 'great.' They serve no purpose and cause overload for the recipient," Spira says.
Some people worry that not sending that brief acknowledgement could cause a problem. So an alternative solution in some workplaces is to use the subject line of the email to convey a quick message like that. If anyone has additional tips or thoughts about cutting through the email clutter, please send them along. Thanks!

Managers at Work is a bimonthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585) 249-9295 or by e-mail at (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail

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