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Thinking outside the inbox: How to avoid email burnout

23rd Aug 2018
Editor AccountingWEB
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Getting too much email
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Emails are one of the biggest contributors to accountants getting sucked into the always-on culture – so just how can you stop getting distracted by that dreaded envelope icon?

The effect the always-on culture is having on accountants has been well-documented over the last few weeks on AccountingWEB. What’s clear from the discussion is that the culprit can be as insidious as the ever-present email.

The recent sunburn and burnout article revealed the tentacle-like grip emails have on practitioners during times such as holidays or during times when they should be switching off.

But a recent Any Answers thread showed how emails are not just snatching our time out of work but they’re also denting accountants’ productivity during work hours.

“I’m horrendous at getting distracted from whatever I’m doing by the envelope icon that appears on my desktop,” confessed AccountingWEB regular At least I sound knowledgeable (ALISK).

As a solution to this email addiction, ALISK has considered setting aside certain times of the day to check their emails. But with this comes further problems: what if this instant response doesn’t meet the client’s expectations? The AccountingWEB community rallied and offered some helpful tips for accountants who can't let go of their emails.

Tip one: Turn off the distraction

“First things first,” said AccountingWEB veteran Marks, “turn off the pop up that shows when you receive an email.”

ALISK had already considered different measures to wrestle out of the email headlock. The first, most pressingly, being to disable their emails on their mobile phone outside work hours.  

AccountingWEB member Maslins agreed: “The distractions will otherwise make the real work you do take ages and have a high risk of errors.”

Marks illustrated the overall damage instant access to your emails can have on your overall productivity. The results are really quite staggering

“Whenever you are working on something and get distracted eg by the email popup, the phone ringing, or staff member coming into office to ask a question it can take 15-20 to get back up to speed with what you were doing,” he said. “Five to 10 interruptions per day and that are easily one to three hours wasted.”

Tip two: Batch check twice a day

Once the emails have been put out of arms reach, the next step is to regulate the amount of time you dedicate to emails. After all, it is so easy to just drop in and check them. But before you know it, you’ve been sucked back into your old habit.

Marks, again, suggests that you only check your emails a maximum of twice a day. It’s with this regularity that Growth Factor’s Simon Kallu also checks his email. It’s something he’s called a massive “productivity hack”: “I batch check them, make sure I get something done productively before I even look at my emails, so I don't look at them until midday.”

Similarly, Marks checks between 11 am and noon and then again between 4 pm and 5 pm.  For many checking their emails is the first thing they do, but this just sets your behaviour for the rest of the day. Which is why some accountants like Rayner Essex’s Laith Hilfi doesn’t get check their emails immediately because “once you get sucked into looking at emails you can go off plan replying to emails”.  

Tip three: Automatic reply

A concern that ALISK raised, and one which many accountants are probably guilty of, is in believing that their clients need an instant reply. The out of office automatic reply can come in handy here. We’ve already seen how firms are ditching the traditional (and frankly mundane) out of office for something a little more colourful.

Firms like Marks’ also use the automatic reply as a productivity strategy. His standard email reply simply receipts the message and confirms that he’ll respond as soon as he can.

This approach somewhat loosens the impetus to reply straight away. It’s with this approach that Marks can take a between one to two days to reply after receiving the email.

Taking it one step further, Mr_awol suggested printing out every email and putting it in your tray alongside letters and phone messages. “Pretend it is all post and you’ll see how you treat it totally different when it’s all ‘equal’,” he said. “For some reason, we have an expectation that an email requires an immediate response and a letter can wait three days.”

Tip four: Is there another issue?

Emails are undoubtedly a big problem, but it might actually be masking a larger issue.  

Maslins could certainly sympathise with ALISK. His role has increasingly drifted away what people might consider “proper work” like tax and accounts to answering queries.

The more his role shifts, the more he has to look into other solutions: “if you're predominantly dealing with small clients, then the more you can take on/train up competent staff, the more your role might drift to be like mine,” he said.

At the moment ALISK is trying to fit multiple roles. This is partly where the issue lies. But Marks has a simple solution to the jobs being too high level for junior staff: “Employ higher quality staff rather than junior staff and start charging what you should be charging.”

One way to do this, and what Marks suggested, is to categorise your clients into five groups (top 20% of turnover, then the next 20% then the next etc). “Your bottom 20% of clients you will find make up a lot of clients. All those clients you should immediately double or triple their price. Some will leave and some won’t.

“Even if they all leave you will only lose 20% of your income but probably 40%-50% of your client numbers leaving you more time to work on the top fee earning clients.”

Tip five: Technology could help

Finally, it might seem a bit counterintuitive but you can fight tech with more tech.

Manchester man, for instance, uses Google G Suite to create a task system, rather than get sucked into answering each email as it comes. “I have set up Google tasks and have (somehow) manager to integrate it so that I can either hit shift and T to make an email a 'task' if using the native Gmail app, or flag the email if using outlook,” he said. “Whichever method I use, this adds a task to Google tasks and Outlook tasks.”

There are plenty of other options such as Logical Office, or as reconyge recommends, Sanebox or Postbox to sort out incoming mail and bin spam.

Others, meanwhile, are exploring practice management solutions like Accountancy Manager, Onkho or Senta to automate their email responses.


But, ultimately, communication has moved on since the letter, as Jennifer Adams said, and with it has clients’ expectations. Emails are just as part of accounting as double entry, these days.

But, remember, that doesn’t mean you should be a slave to them, as this story by Jennifer demonstrates: “I recently had an email from a client asking something that I needed to check. I emailed and said I'd be back ASAP and then responded 20 minutes later with a fully researched and considered reply.

“His response? He'd gone somewhere else and found the answer quicker.”

Have we missed any email management tips? How do you make sure emails are not the first and last thing you think about every day?

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By tom123
23rd Aug 2018 20:27

I always find email discussions interesting. Sir James Dyson, I understand, only has about 6 emails per day.

That's great - but of course his staff are fending them off for him.

If you are a little lower down the foodchain, there is an expectation that emails will generate a response - within a few minutes.

I am not talking about emails with the outside world - but rather ones within the company.

If I were to only deign to look at my emails a couple of times a day, you can be sure the MD would be hovering around my desk wondering if I was doing any work.

In actual fact, I would describe my email inbox AS my work, rather than getting in the way of doing it.

After all, my role is to spread information around - and that tends to be in response to emails I have received.

Yes, I sometimes get a bit of uninterrupted head down time - particularly if I say 'payroll' to anyone loitering.

But the days of silently beavering away uninterrupted are over.

Having said that, timely insertion of headphones seems to give one some space.

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