Email sucks. It's a terrible communication platform (no live, two-way communication), messages are sometimes understood the wrong way, they get lost, you turn around and there are 50 new emails in your inbox, and deciding what to do (open, read, file, trash) is a frustrating process. If you're old like me (I'm 48), you probably remember the old Inbox on your desk where you received actual paper memos. Harkening back to those old times, we only received/wrote 2-3 (no more than five) memos a day. Most business was done face to face or over the phone (where real, live, two-way communication happens).
Here are some tips that I use to make my way through 125-150 emails a day:
- Recognize that email is not your master, it's a piece of software. Too many executives and business owners live and die by every email that drops into their inbox. If you step back and look at your career, major leaps and successes were not built on that one email you sent or read, it was clearly delivered by your actions, presence, management, leadership, and interpersonal skills. And more importantly, not a snarky comment at the end of an email. So here's your first challenge: Stop giving any importance to your inbox. If someone asks you if you read an email that they sent you, say "No". Tell everyone that you are on an "email diet" and if they truly have something important to communicate, pick up the phone or stop by your office. Your fear of missing that important email will slowly go away. Trust me.
- Turn off your email notifier that lets you know another email has arrived. This is a big one - stop reading it every minute of the day. Unless you are a bookie and have to place bets instantly, you do not have to read that email this moment. Begin by setting in place certain times of the hour or day to read email. Some executives do it during the last 5-10 minute of each hour; some spend 15-30 minutes in the morning, at noon, and before they go home. Pick a process that suits you. Also - stop checking your Blackberry or iPhone every available minute.
- Prioritize your email. This is my secret that I unveil to many of my clients with time management issues. Go into your email program and setup rules to color your email messages (check in your help center of Outlook or MacMail). Here are the three categories that I manage my email: a. Critical - emails from your boss, other superiors, and clients. These should be colored red and attended to immediately. b. Important - emails where you are on the 'To:' line only (no one else). These are emails that are singularly directed at you. Color them blue. c. Not Important - all other emails - these should be colored gray and only read — if you have the time. You'll find that 80% of your email ends up in the 'Not Important' bucket and 20% is in buckets 'A' and 'B'. You will also find (if the Pareto Rule is in effect — that the most important communication — is found in the 20%, which delivers 80% of the impact of your position. If colors don't work, use folders.
- Don't respond to emails with an email. How many times have you been pulled into an email 'conversation' or even worse, an email 'confrontation'? Try picking up your phone, doing a 'drive-by' someone's office or cubicle, or hosting a short meeting (if it is truly important or an issue that is beginning to blow up). The more that you take important communication events out of email, the more that you will use and receive useless emails. If you receive it on your phone, call back instead of emailing them.
- Turn emails into what they really are — memos. Emails should communicate key information, schedules, and history, not management or leadership. As I stated above, they are poor communication vehicles, but they are useful ones when used effectively. When you have the itch to send an email, don't. Most of the time, you can just let sleeping dogs lie and don't respond.
Now I understand there might be vocations that live and thrive on email - so it might be tough doing all my tips. But try just one and see how it affects your input, throughput and output. Even if you get a 5% savings in email time a week, that equals 2 full hours you can apply to more important issues.
But remember, I'm not stating 'Don't read your email', just not the important ones. It will be hard and this will take some practice.
Stick to this plan for one day, review. Then one week, review. Then one month . . . and keep going. You might surprise yourself.