Top 5 Ways to Deal with the Abuse of the Reply All E-mails

Even smart people in smart organizations sometimes fall into digital distraction traps. Though I rarely have to resort to such means now, it wasn’t long ago that I had to send a “friendly reminder” to our entire company about Reply All abuse. In this post I’m going to share my top five recommendations for putting an end to this costly – in terms of both productivity and money – trap. But first, here’s a little eye-opening context.

The Information Overload Research Group, a nonprofit consortium of business professionals, researchers, and consultants, reports that knowledge workers in the United States waste 25% of their time dealing with their huge and growing data streams, costing the economy $997 billion annually.

Digital distractions from these huge and growing data streams cause us to waste time, attention, and energy on relatively unimportant information and interactions. They make us feel like we’re busy when in truth we’re producing little of value. As the late Clifford Nass and his colleagues at Stanford University have shown, people who regularly juggle several streams of content do not pay attention, memorize, or manage their tasks as well as those who focus on one thing at a time. Digital interruptions have been shown to adversely affect productivity, engagement, decision-making, innovation, and personal well-being – both in the office and at home. 

You won’t be surprised to learn that one of the most common digital distractions is e-mail. A study by Microsoft researchers tracking the e-mail habits of coworkers found that once their work had been interrupted by an e-mail notification, people took, on average, 24 minutes to return to the suspended task. Another experiment conducted at the University of London found that we lose as many as 10 IQ points when we allow our work to be interrupted by seemingly benign distractions like e-mails, ringing phones, and text messages. That’s bad news for both individuals and the organizations they work for.

A few more e-mail stats:

·         Knowledge workers average 20 hours a week managing e-mail.

·         60% of computer users check e-mail in the bathroom.

·         A typical knowledge worker turns to e-mail 50 to 100 times a day.

·         Employees consider 1 in 3 e-mails unnecessary.

Should I Reply to All?

Sometimes it’s hard to know whether or not you should use the Reply All option. When you are unsure, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Does everyone need to hear what you have to say? If no, Reply All is not necessary and you should cut the distribution list down to only those who need to be directly involved in the conversation.
  2. Is the topic of conversation related to a big decision or a complex issue that will likely create tons of back and forth? If yes, Reply All is not the most efficient tool to resolve the issue at hand.
  3. Would the conversation in question be more appropriately handled in a face-to-face meeting or on a phone call rather than via another e-mail? If yes, skip the Reply All e-mail and either pick up the phone or schedule that meeting.

While you’re getting yourself and your team up to speed on when it’s appropriate to use Reply All, you might also like to suggest some ways people can better manage their e-mail. Here are my top 5 ways to deal with Reply All abuse:  

  1. No Reply All Outlook Add-In: This Microsoft plug-in prevents anyone from sending a Reply All in response to a mass e-mail blast. Most organizations unknowingly pay a high price in lowered productivity and efficiency when employees who are already struggling to manage the information glut are forced to deal with irrelevant information. In the case of e-mail, effective spam filters have reduced this problem, but company-wide e-mail blasts can create a spam-like situation if the Reply All function isn’t disabled.
  2. Clutter: In Outlook 2016 for Windows, "Clutter" helps you filter low-priority e-mail so you have more time (and focus!) to effectively manage your most important messages. Your e-mail server already keeps track of which e-mails you read vs. which ones you ignore. Once you turn it on, Clutter automatically recognizes the messages you're most likely to ignore and puts them into the "Clutter" folder. The more you use it, the better it gets. And, if you find Clutter isn't for you, you can easily turn it off.
  3. BCC: BCC stands for “blind carbon copy” and is an often-underutilized tool.  Unlike CC (“carbon copy”), your recipients cannot see who is on a BCC list. BCC can be used to prevent an accidental Reply All because the reply will only be sent to the originator of the message, not the entire BCC recipient list. To put this to use, simply send a note to yourself and blind copy everyone else.
  4. Ignore Conversation: The Ignore Conversation feature helps you keep unwanted conversations out of your Inbox by moving all messages related to conversations you’ve selected directly to your Deleted Items folder.
  5. Reply All Jar: Last but not least, one of the most effective (and fun) methods for retraining people on how to properly use Reply All is the Reply All Jar. I have to credit my friend and colleague, Matt Kropp, for this old-school approach. Essentially Reply All offenders are publicly (but gently) humiliated and have to deposit a $1 for every recipient on the unnecessary Reply All e-mail.  The money collected is donated to the local culture club.

Whatever method you use to control unnecessary Reply All distractions in your workplace, remember that it’s up to you to protect your team’s cognitive resources. The more you can do to minimize task switching over the course of the day, the more mental bandwidth they will have for activities that actually matter.

I hope this has been helpful in your battle against information overload and digital distractions. If, after asking yourself these questions, you are still uncertain whether you should Reply All to an e-mail, I recommend this online guide, which was created by someone who had first-hand experience with too many Reply All e-mails.