How many work emails is too many?

Many of us feel overburdened by emails at work. These frustrations were given voice by an assistant of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex last year who quit after her “demanding” employer would email her early as 5am in the morning. Now an employee of Carole Middleton, mother of the Duchess of Cambridge, has gone public about being “bombarded” with 71 emails a day by her boss. Some may be shocked, but many of us may feel the employee of the party catering firm had it easy. After all, the average office worker apparently receives 121 emails and sends about 40 each day.

As the number of emails received rises, so too does evidence that email overload is a bad thing. It can take upwards of 20 minutes to get back to a task after being interrupted by an email. Constant email distractions can also temporarily lower IQ by an average of 10 points, and make people perform much worse at a task. Email can also crowd out the main tasks people are hired to do, leaving them frustrated.

If too many emails are dangerous, we need to ask what is too many? Some think one email is too much. These inbox avoiders recommend we should simply set an out-of-office reply and let emails deal with themselves. In contrast, inbox embracers accept that email is part of their job and say we should just be professional and polite when dealing with them.

However, most people fall into a third group: the inbox ambivalents. They accept too few emails equates with being out of touch and too many means being overloaded. Inbox ambivalents aim to get just the right number of emails. If they would like to spend 30 minutes a day on emails, say, and it takes about one minute to deal with each, that means 30 a day. To achieve their goal, inbox ambivalents use strategic ignorance by tending to emails that are important and overlooking others that aren’t. Strategic ignorance has a cost – you may miss things and annoy some people. But there’s a pay-off: you win back time which can be used to get your job done.