Spoiler alert! I don’t have the answer either and want to learn from others.
I remember the old days before email: we relied on talking to each other and on written communications that came on paper. On the day before a vacation I would finalize reports, make copies, and stuff them into inter-office envelopes after I’d taken care of all my follow-up phone calls. Now on the day before vacation I have to get through all the email that can’t wait another week and generate new ones as I work through my to-do list.
It seems endless. Everyone complains about too much email. Can’t we just shut it off? No, it’s the way we work now and there’s no going back.
Here are some of my tips:
Triage – I quickly scan for priority emails by subject, who it’s from and importance (some people actually use those flags as intended). Deal with what you have to in as timely a manner as possible. Repeat the triage scan every time you look at your inbox.
Use Automatic rules – I have 3 rules set up in Outlook that I rely on.
- The “CC Inbox”. The rule says if I’m in the CC line, push it to the “CC Inbox”. I review that folder throughout the day but not with the same urgency as the inbox. Over time, people who work for me learn to not CC me if they need a direct answer. “CC” is for FYI.
- The “External to Read” folder. The rule says if it’s from outside the organization, push it to an “External To Read” folder. That one I review far less frequently. I do scan it during the day, moving to my inbox any email from the vendors I’m working with or the organizations I’m active in. Sorry, vendors who do email “cold calls”: not only do I screen my calls but I also screen my email. Unsolicited emails don’t get, or deserve, the same attention.
- The “high volume of one type of email” folder. This could be automatic notifications that come from an internal system or emails from a particular organization or involving a specific project. If there is a keyword you can create a rule and push them into a specific folder for batch review and handling.
Convert Email to scheduled task – Convert any emails that require work and have a due date to be a scheduled task on your calendar. How else will you get it done if you don’t schedule time to do it?
Use Reply All Less – We’ve all seen it: an email that goes to a large group and someone does “reply all” even though only one or two people need to see the reply. Model behavior for others — use “reply all” less.
Write Good Subject Lines – Meaningful and searchable subjects are a help to everyone. Subjects like “follow-up” or “need help” have no meaning and are hard to find later. Blank subject lines are even worse. Specify what’s needed – a meaningful subject followed by “FYI”, or “Need Action” or “Need Approval” communicates what you want. Include a due date in the subject if you have one. The people you work with will thank you for being so clear!
Pick up the phone – when it’s time to stop the back and forth email, pick up the phone. When email has become instant messaging, just call the person. When the nuances are getting lost, only a real-time conversation will work. When email gets nasty, find time to talk and clear the air. Nasty-grams are never ok, period.
I will never be someone with an empty inbox, all caught up on my email. But I will continue to refine how I manage it and try my best to be responsive. I want to hear your tips and techniques – maybe I’ll compile them for a future post.