I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find myself hating email. Email was designed to allow for quick and efficient communication, but has actually become a bottleneck—an ever expanding monster that swallows up your time. Well you know what? It’s time to put on our suits of shining white armour and slay the email dragon together.
Think back to how you feel when you look at your inbox. Remember that dreadful feeling you get when you see 50, 100, 200 emails stacking up for you to action? Worst of all, those are just the unread emails. There’s often a whole backlog of emails that you glanced at and told yourself you’d address later.
Well, now is later, and they’re still there—with more on the way.
A recent study by McKinsey Global Institute and Data Corp. found that email is the second-most time-consuming activity for workers, next to “role-specific tasks”. McKinsey also found that introducing social networking tools in business increased the productivity of workers by 20 to 25 per cent.
Bear in mind that these tools aren’t referring to tools like Facebook or Twitter, but business social network tools such as Yammer, MangoApps and Jive, to name a few. While these are geared predominantly toward large corporates, tools such as Google Docs or Dropbox can be decent substitutes for smaller businesses. But let’s get back to email.
I’ve personally looked at dozens of different inbox zero products and systems from ‘time management experts’ who I’m sure had the greatest intentions in the world, and probably made enough money to fill an Olympic swimming pool. What these solutions offered though was often as time-consuming as just dealing with the emails themselves.
So what can we do about it? I certainly don’t have all the ans wers. In fact, I have 390 emails staring at me from my inbox right now that I let stack up—in just four weeks—due to being too ‘busy’ to deal with them. I’ll try to keep these tips short, as we both have emails to get back to:
1. Be Selective – cloud products such as Gmail have given us virtually unlimited storage. This can be great for paper trails, but how often do you actually need to reach into that ever-expanding heap of emails? My guess is rarely, if at all.
Emails are a communication medium. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have thousands of short text messages saved on my phone, and I’m pretty happy about that.
If an email contains something TRULY important that you want to store indefinitely:
- Gmail – Archive it
- Outlook – Store it in an offline personal folder
- In both cases, Label or Categorise it if it makes life easier.
It’s easy to archive emails—just make sure you enforce a little bit of self-discipline and only archive emails you know you will need. Giving it this bit of extra thought is valuable in itself, helping you to minimise ‘skimming’ and assess the value of the email.
2. Go Offline – part of why we struggle with getting rid of those pesky emails is the fact there are more coming in every day, hour, minute— just knowing you have hundreds or thousands of emails is subconscious baggage that can stifle not only your productivity, but your creativity.
Set aside some time every day to go offline and deal with your emails, and let nothing or nobody distract you. Remember the acronym “ADD”. You should aim to either:
- Action It – if a response is required, send it and then delete the email. You will have a copy saved in your Sent Items that will contain the conversation for future reference
- Delegate It – if an action is required, but you can’t or don’t want to action it, simply delegate it and delete it. Try not to dwell on it, or tell yourself you will come back to it
- Delete It – if there is no action required from you, trash the email. If you need a piece of in information for future reference, follow step 1 above or simply jot down what you need in a tool like Evernote.
3. Extend Your Out of Office – next time you are out of the office on holiday or off the radar for whatever reason, set your ‘date due back’ one day longer than you will be gone.
It’s hard enough actioning, delegating and deleting emails we received while away without having to deal with the flood of emails you’ll get when people know you’re back. Don’t worry, it’s our little secret!
4. Work Backwards – part of what makes email stacks so hard to whittle down is the fact they are always building on emails that are weeks, months and years old.
Next time you set aside time offline to deal with your inbox, sort your emails in reverse chronological order—dealing with the oldest emails first. Apply the same ADD method we looked at above, and set a maximum of two minutes to deal with any single email.
Try it—self imposing a time constraint can work wonders on your productivity. You may even uncover tasks that fell off your to-do lists.
5. Email Night – I’m not a huge advocate about working overtime unless it’s necessary. I like to work effectively so that I can enjoy my down time with the people I care about. We both know this sometimes just isn’t possible. But we can tackle it together if we get organised.
If you find you and your partner checking your smart phones instead of spending quality time together, alarm bells should be ringing. ‘Family time’ or even just time with your close friends is important—I don’t mean to sound macabre, but one of the biggest regrets men have on their death bed is having worked too hard. These days, I’m fairly confident this worry is also on the minds of many women.
Set aside one night a week to dedicate yourself to working ‘overtime’—you may be surprised at how most families will have no problem, simply because it’s ‘in the calendar’, freeing up your attention the rest of the week. It’s far better to be unavailable one day a week, than ‘flaky’ seven nights a week.
6. Learn to Let Go – it’s so easy to send emails quickly and to multiple people that we often do it unnecessarily. The temptation to share your opinion on everything is admittedly great, sometimes it’s better to simply hold that thought and get back to work. If somebody truly wants your opinion on something, they will ask you directly.
I like my tennis as much as the next guy, but back and forth emails can really grind my gears. If you feel it is truly important, simply set yourself a task to address that issue face to face or on the phone.
7. Be Proactive, Not Reactive – coincidentally, this is also our Managed IT Support mantra, and can apply to time management with emails.
WARNING: This method can be extremely effective, but does not sit well with everyone—probably because we are all closet email addicts.
This is how it works: set an Out of Office message letting people know that you routinely check your emails once in the morning, and once in the late afternoon. Also state that if the matter is time sensitive, they should call you on your mobile phone or landline.
The two most important things to remember about the above is that you need to be SPECIFIC in terms of the times you do check your emails and then COMMIT to setting that time aside to action all emails using the ADD principle.
I actually learned about (part of) this method from Tim Ferriss, an entrepreneur and TED Speaker who is self-admittedly obsessed with learning and improving systems. While it may make you flinch to think about using this method, it does make a lot of sense—emails can easily be overlooked, and if something truly is urgent, we should just pick up the darn phone.
Hopefully we paved the way toward nearing the mythical inbox zero. If you have any tips of your own to share, we’d love to hear them– just share them in the comments below.