When it first emerged, email quickly became our favorite business tool. It was efficient, saved time and money, and gave us incredible power to instantly reach out to coworkers, customers and colleagues with just a few clicks and keystrokes.

Fast-forward 15 years and for many, email is now a living hell.  Overflowing inboxes have become overwhelming and time-consuming, dragging down business productivity and wasting time and money—the exact opposite of what was intended. The average worker sends and receives 190 email messages per day, spending almost one-third of their workweek managing email. Some poor souls even have to carve out time just to suffer the torture of triaging email.

How did email heaven become email hell? “It was too successful,” says Chris Savoie, an IT product manager and email guru. “Letters, phone calls, wishful thinking, etc. all got wrapped into one form of communication that could instantaneously be sent and received without any context. It became so easy that it made communicators lazy, and communication became so cheap that anyone could use it. The result was a glut of communication, resulting largely in noise.”

We started using email for EVERYTHING when it was never intended to replace every other communication media. The deadly sins of lust, sloth and gluttony manifested in inappropriate and over-zealous use, which quickly engulfed our days in eternal hellfire.

Take back control of your inbox—and your workday—by eliminating these 7 deadly email sins:

  1. ‘All company’ and ‘reply all’ distribution. Do your best to avoid fanning the flames of others’ misery by using these blanket distributions only when absolutely necessary. Replying to the entire company about something not everyone needs to know only takes time away from their day, too. The Golden Rule applies here. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you: don’t needlessly add to the email clutter.
  2. ‘War and Peace’ prose. Email should be quick and to the point. Write clearly and succinctly, and use marketing-style subject lines to grab the reader’s attention. Leslie O’Flahavan with E-Write says, “People should write a clear, useful subject line. Doing so helps both sender and receiver know what needs to get done.” If you need to write more than two brief paragraphs, the subject is probably too complicated for email and would be best addressed over the phone or face to face.
  3. Using email as a to-do list. Prioritizing and organizing email is a wise strategy. For ASU Alumni Association Digital Media Manager Matt Hodson, this means, “Emails that need attention get marked as unread until I either respond or otherwise deal with the message.” But, using the read/unread status to manage work tasks beyond email can quickly become a disaster. Instead, use an appropriate work request, assignment tracking, and review/approval tracking tool. Again, email shouldn’t be all things to all people. There are better tools available—use them.
  4. The CC: threat. Carbon-copying the boss on every email sent to colleagues can be abusive and abrasive. No matter how you present it, the recipient will likely view it as a bully move that basically translates to, “I’ve copied the boss, so she knows I’ve asked you to work on this task. Choose your response carefully.” Using carbon-copy as a threat or to cover your backside breeds a culture of contempt and just clogs everyone’s inbox. “If people don’t feel like CYA is a critical business skill, then they will email less,” Savoie says, and that’s good for everyone’s inbox.
  5. Fear of unsubscribe. Signing up to receive all of those newsletters, shopping deals, blog posts, and other things probably seemed like a great idea at the time. And, even though they may still be valuable, if you don’t have time to read them, they only add to the email chaos and start to feel like obligations that you’re unable to fulfill. Get over your fear of “missing out” and get rid of that clutter by unsubscribing. You’ll feel an immediate stress relief and stop feeling inadequate for not being able to keep up with it all.
  6. Using email as a routing/approval tool. How many times have you sent documents to stakeholders for review, only to have it get lost for days in their overwhelming inbox? Worse yet, if you must send the same document to multiple stakeholders, they each will likely return separate versions with their individual comments or edits, which then must be aggregated into one. If there are conflicting edits, it can be a personal hell trying to get it resolved. Because there’s no tracking, nor any way for reviewers to see what others had to say, using email in this way can be a disaster that prolongs review and approvals and puts projects behind schedule. Instead, use a proper proofing and routing tool that keeps projects moving through the process swiftly and automatically aggregates reviewers’ input into a single source.
  7. Using email as work management. Perhaps the worst sin of all, using email to manage work is the single biggest contributor to email overload. Email was not designed to manage work requests, task assignments and tracking, project updates, collaboration, document sharing, and other project management tasks. Trying to use email for everything just creates chaos and results in lost information, confusion, and wasted time. Stop torturing yourself and your team—invest in real work management tools that make it easier, not harder, to get work done.

Cool the Burn of Email Hell

The bottom line is that email is great at what it was intended for: a worthy replacement for snail mail and faxing.  But, like so many other things, we loved it so much that we began using it for everything under the sun. In the absence of anything better, email has morphed into a loose-knit project management tool, turning this once-great tool into a hellish beast.

By returning to email’s communication roots, and adopting other, more appropriate tools to manage work, we can rise out of the ashes, take back control of our inbox, and learn to love email again.