This is a slightly amended guide to mastering your email, I wrote for some colleagues. I hope you find it useful and there is a link to a PDF version at the end of the post.
Email is the double-edged sword of office productivity, it empowers us yet overwhelms us too. It requires discipline and rules to ensure that is doesn’t rule our workday.
The way we use email in our workplaces goes towards breeding certain behaviours and it’s influence can be seen in the way many of us speak at work. How many times have you heard references to email and its handling in meetings, in the corridor or when we ‘bump our gums’ aimlessly? Yet, email is just another communication tool albeit a powerful one. So, like a superhero with super powers we must yield it wisely or it will control our day, our behaviour and how we interact with others.
These are the guidelines I try to follow as I believe it is all to easy to become less productive, off-target and ineffective as managers because of email. And on a personal level, I believe that some of the email behaviours we follow at work are not reflective of our own personal values which should remain our over-arching guide.
1. Turn off notifications
More for Blackberries but just as applicable to desktop use. Unless you are running a nuclear facility you don’t need real-time email notifications to distract your working routine. Set up a more realistic approach such as every 30 minutes or so but importantly it fits into your work routine.
2. Delete it
There are a couple of facets to this for me. Firstly, we use email at the work for proof. Why? Do we keep all our phone calls with people? Is it really living our values if we need to keep emails as proof of doing something. Conversely, I refuse to send emails just to confirm what I have spoken about to someone so that they can keep it for the the same reason.
Secondly, we need to be honest with ourselves. If we are not going to do something with an email, will we honestly feel guilt ridden in a month and do so if it has sat in our inbox staring at us? Be honest, ditch it!
Keep any emails for reference in that project/personnel/audit etc file rather than in our email client.
3. Highlight important messages
Outlook has a great feature to highlight with a colour any messages directly to you. Switch it on! Other email clients have similar. It is likely that emails directly to you require your attention and this feature will stand them out from the CC noise. You can also use colour in your calendar to identify meeting categories so that you can apply personal rules such as ones where deputies can go, regular meetings etc.
4. Tweet it!
Twitter forces its users to be concise by constraining its messages to 140 characters. Why shouldn’t we follow a similar approach to email. Generally, anything more than a few lines should be communicated face-to-face or over the phone as it is open to misinterpretation or is just too complex for a simple typed message. It also invites emails back in the form of questions or people feeling the need to reflect the length of your message with one of similar length.
For very short messages such as a thanks or a quick notice, use the subject line. This means the recipient doesn’t need to open it but just glance at his inbox and delete it. Just be sure to end it with [EOM] to show that there is nothing in the body of the email.
5. Use rules
I mentioned above highlighting important emails but this can be taken further with rules. Use the rules in Outlook to automate lots of tasks depending on your workflow practices. For example, I have a rule that automatically sends IT Helpdesk confirmations to my “@waiting for” folder. That way I don’t need to process them and I can do all my chasing up from my “@waiting for” folder according to my workflow. Be creative. Use rules to flag, action or delete messages.
Think about what messages do you really need to see, what can be forwarded, what can be grouped for later actioning and what can be deleted and set up rules around this.
6. Maintain an empty inbox
Maintain an empty inbox. Your inbox is a temporary landing-pad for all different types of inputs. How many times do we say that we ‘check’ our email? Lots. And how much of that ‘checked’ email is still in your inbox. What a waste of time. Your time is finite yet what is being asked of you will always be infinite so a better way of handling your inbox and maintaining the landing pad is to ‘process’ your email.
I have one inbox on my desk and one email inbox and I treat all that comes into it in the same way. My system is based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done1. Simply put my processes are;
- Delete it (or archive)
- Delegate it
- Defer it (to a calendar or other system to be done at a planned point – not languishing in the inbox)
- Do it (if less than 2 mins, do it or respond now)
With these processes it is much easier to maintain an empty inbox which is a list of items you still have to deal with and not a confused overwhelming list of things to delete, maybe get back to or waiting for some more information.
It is worth pointing out here that your archive should be one folder. Only one. It is common for people to have lots of folders as their email archive; people, areas of responsibility, factories but this is the 21st century and we should be using the search facilities within Outlook which is actually far more effectual than any manual filing system.
1. Allen, David. Getting Things Done. Paitkus 2002
You can download a PDF fact-sheet of this post here.