On your death bed, will you be one of those people saying that “my career was made up of responding to thousands of emails”? When I ask myself this question it motivates really well to take a step back and think about work that actually matters.
In my day job as a business leader and P&L owner with accountability of over 200 people, I get A LOT of emails from customers, direct reports, suppliers and managers every hour. I am essentially right in the middle of the email communication hub between all these parties. I have read about, tried and tested most email management methods out there. A lot of the advice propose systems with lists and folders that complicates my work more than it helps.
My view is that far too many people with knowledge work, including myself sometimes, spend too much time to work in their email inbox as a result of intellectual laziness. I think that one of the reasons is that reactive work takes less brain power than proactive work. It is easier to just drift along with the emails coming in rather thinking a bit harder about how to get the right things done. In this post, I will detail out some of the email productivity hacks that enabled me to become more productive and proactive.
1. Scheduling time intentionally for processing emails
Days when I am not focused I turn to my email inbox directly in the morning and in between meetings. The problem with this is that I normally help other people in doing things instead of making sure the needle is moved on my own priorities. It’s also a real productivity killer to use the golden morning hours for work that requires little creative thinking. I fully appreciate that many of the questions I get are follow-up questions on tasks I have delegated to other people or requests from customers. Whilst these are of course important and should not be neglected, you always have to ask yourself what is most important in the long run for all parties.
Sometimes you have to let minor bad things happen to enable the major good things to happen. Therefore, read email when you have intentionally scheduled the time to do it instead of just letting it happen. Turn off email notifications immediately. Don’t read emails as a nervous drug addict uses drugs. Reading emails on the fly when you can’t decide the next steps or completely process your emails just make you feel stressed out and overwhelmed.
2. Do not work on the same email conversation over and over
If you just start plowing through your email from the top to the bottom you will most likely bump into the same subject/conversion a few times further down your inbox. The problem here is that when you get to the next same conversation again, you will spend some time processing and analysing it before you realise it belongs to the same conversation you have already processed. To prevent this, I always sort my emails by subject or conversation before processing them.
3. Do not over-organize your email archive
Spending time on setting up advanced archive folder structures can be a waste of time a trap you want to avoid falling into. I used to consider myself having the most sophisticated email folder system in the world, but in retrospect I realise that the time I spent on maintaining the structure was too much in comparison to the value it gave. I anyway had a hard time finding my emails, due to that the folder logic allowed the same email to be placed in many different places. This problem can easily occur when you, for instance, have one set of folders with persons and another set with projects. The same email can belong in two places. This issue can be resolved by assigning emails to category folders so it can be found in several places, but it still requires maintenance. My view is that you can save time maintaining a structure and instead spend some of this time for when you are searching for a particular email in the future. My experience with eliminating the folder archive structure is that you can make a great net saving by implementing “no structure” even if it sounds a bit disorganized.
4. Decide the next step immediately
Never touch an email twice. Address it immediately using the 4D method (Delete, Delegate, Defer, Do), even if it requires some additional brain power in the now. You will most likely not be more ready to decide the next step in the future. By not deciding what to do immediately you will have more open ends to procrastinate over. You can just as well decide immediately. I would even add a 5th D (Destroy), which means that you try to get rid of spam for good or that you try to kill a never ending email conversation, by making sure the email thread stops and doesn’t waste you or other peoples times anymore. Scheduling a short meeting to straighten things out might be the best way out sometimes.
5. Do not act on trivial matters that people throw at you because they are too lazy
Some people are playing email ping pong and do not let yourself be drawn into this game if you do not have time. Some people have a tendency of not taking the ball and running with it. If you get emails from people who fire away a question to a whole heap of recipients, it’s normally a sign that they do not want to spend effort on figuring out what to ask from whom. If they show this type of laziness, they deserve the same laziness back. So, wait for trivial things to solve themselves.
With technology, such as email, it is far too easy to type down your brain farts or add recipients vs when we had the good old snail mail. With snail mail, we physically had to put our envelope in order and also pay for posting, which I believe was a great filter for trivial stuff.
6. Do not read cc emails if you are on a need to know basis
Whilst control is good, your time and energy is limited. If you struggle with reading all your emails, you are on a need to know basis. The first thing to cut out is the cc (carbon copy) emails. In MS Outlook, I set up a cc folder where my emails go automatically. I almost never missed something critical by doing this so far. If there was something very important in there, the mistake was on the sender. He/she was not using the “to” and cc fields as they should.
Read more: The dos and don’t of the emails cc
7. Speed read your inbox
Only 5-10% of the emails I get I consider important. I have a lot of unread emails on a day to day basis. Therefore, I quickly scroll through my emails daily to see if there is anything super important that needs my attention immediately, which is rarely the case. if people don’t call me or really try to get hold of me in other ways with “important” things, the issue can wait.
Read more: Speed read inbox zero
8. Clean up your inbox, but not every day
Clean up your inbox fully with a pre-determined interval. This activity is not critical, but for me it feels great to at least once per week clean up my inbox. It is like having a great order in your wardrobe. It is not critical, but it gives you a great sense of accomplishment and control once your have done it.
9. Let automatic rules clean up as many emails as much as possible
Use rules for ads, invite confirmations and spam. Do not accept deleting the same type of emails over and over again, but report them as spam or set up rules for how to automatically get rid of or archive them.
Read more: Mailstrom.com
10. Respect that people need to rest to perform at their full potential
Never send emails to your subordinates out of office hours. “Baby see, baby do”. You do not want to create a culture where people burn each other out. If you really need to work evening/night hours, respect your colleagues and do it offline. You will anyway never become a role model by doing something like this.
Sit back and think before opening your email inbox
Much has been said about email management and everyone is an expert on it these days. There is much advice on how to manage your email effectively out there. A lot of books explain the “best ways” of working with email. Many of the best ways are sometimes written by people that has never experienced real email overload. Be aware that for every email you write you normally get at least one email back. The primary mistake I see is that people make is that they spend too much time on responding to emails rather than actually getting work done. So, turn off your email notification, focus on real work that matters and continue to lead by example!
If you have other insoghts on how to manage email I would love to hear about them in the comment section below.