Law Practice Management

Happy Fifth of July!
Can you hear the pop of emails exploding in your inbox?

July 5, 2012

How was your Fourth of July?  I hope you had a safe and happy holiday.  I hope you spent time with friends & family, ate some burgers, drank some beer, wine or adult beverage of your choice.  Relaxed, chilled, waved a flag or two – and celebrated our wonderful country.  Wednesday holidays are weird, though.  They kind of throw the week off.  After all, they’re just one day away from the office.  Just. One. Day. So, I have a question for you:  Did you check your office email yesterday?


I bet you did.  I will confess that I did, but just once.  And I’ve not yet checked my email this morning.  I’ve vowed not to open it until I finish this post. And even now I’m wondering what’s in there.  But for now . . . FOCUS!

One of the biggest frustrations I hear about from attorneys is email: How can I find the time to deal with it?  What should I do about clients who expect an instant answer to an email?   What am I supposed to do with all the emails in my inbox?

Do you feel guilty and overwhelmed and obsessively attracted to your inbox all at the same time?  Join the club.  Just the word “email” can trigger a rise in blood pressure for some and beads of perspiration on the forehead for others.  Email can be a pleasant distraction, a debilitating productivity killer and tremendous source of aggravation.

Well, I have some good news and some bad news.   The good news is there are things you can do to begin to slay the email dragon.  The bad news is there’s no one sure-fire solution – no silver bullet to shoot the darn thing!  – Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Here – in no particular order – are my Top 10 Email Tips.  Some might work for you; others might not.  The thing is you have to find the approaches that do work and make them a habit.   What we’re talking about is changing behavior – extinguishing bad email habits and replacing them with good ones.  Changing our behavior is no easy task, though.  In Changing for Good, the authors explain that most people who kick a habit – like smoking for example – make three or four serious attempts before they succeed.  So, don’t get discouraged.  Stick with it and you can create new habits that will help you tame (if not slay) the email monster.

1. Don’t check your email first thing in the morning. This approach works really well for some.  There’s even book about this approach by Julie Morgenstern.  If you’re easily sucked into the email vortex, this approach might work for you.  Rather than turning on your email when you first get to the office or firing it up on your iPad while you’re still at home, spend your first 15-30 minutes in the morning planning your day and focusing on what you want to accomplish.  You may not get it all done, but you’ll be way ahead of the game.
2. Schedule time to process email. Batching similar tasks – like processing email – is a simple way to reduce the amount of multitasking you do.  Switching back and forth between different tasks is incredibly inefficient and results in lots of wasted time.  In fact, industrial researchers have found that we can be up to four times more productive when we batch similar tasks such as processing email.
3. Do it.  Defer it. Delegate it. Dump it. Let’s start with “do it.”  If you can respond to an email in two minutes: Do it. Right then and there.  (Thank you, David Allen, author of Getting Things Done.)  If you can’t do it in two minutes then you must: 1) Defer it until you have more time to deal with it; or 2)Delegate it to someone else, if you’re not the one who needs to do it; or 4) Dump it.  Every single email in your inbox will fit into one of these four categories.
4. Don’t’ answer email immediately when it comes in. OK, you say, “But what if I can answer it in two minutes like you just told me to?”  Here’s what I mean.  If a client sends you an email (unless it is truly urgent and you need to drop everything to address it), respond by saying something like, “I’ve received your email and would like to give it thoughtful consideration before responding.  You’ll have my reply no later than _____.”   By replying in this way, you’ve responded to your client; you’ve given yourself time to think rather than merely react; and you’ve not set the expectation that you’ll provide an immediate answer to any question your client (or anyone else for that matter) sends.  CAVEAT: If you’ve trained your clients to expect immedate responses to emails, let them know you’re changing your way of work to be more effective.  And if you have “A+” clients for whom you will drop everything, this tip won’t apply to them.  However, I hope they’re paying a premium for such service!
5. Send fewer emails. Duh.  Send fewer = Get fewer.  (Note to self: Remember #5.)
6. Create folders. REMEMBER:  Your inbox is not your to do list!  Don’t leave emails in your inbox to “remind” you to do something.  You will almost certainly forget about it.  If you’re using a case management system, your emails may be handled through the program.  Some programs integrate email, some don’t.  The same is true for cloud-based solutions.
7. Use tools and plug-ins. Outlook plugins like SimplyFile (the one I use) or Xobni can really help you get your inbox organized and under control.
8. Power through with Pomodoros. The Pomodoro Technique: 25 minutes of focus, then a five-minute break is a great way power through your inbox.  Click here to read more about the Pomodoro Technique.
9. Use just the subject line when you can. Be careful with this one.  Let the people you communicate with regularly know that you’re going to begin using this technique and ask them to do the same.  This approach can save tons of time within your office.
10. Just deal with today. In his book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, author Shawn Achor talks about the concept of Zorro Circles.  The idea of a Zorro Circle is to start small in your quest for control.  If you have a 100, 1,000 or 5,000 emails in you inbox, the idea of cleaning it out can be downright paralyzing.  So start small.  Make it habit to focus only on today’s emails.  Then after a few days of handling just that day’s emails, begin to go back and address others.  I suggest making it a game.  Get a timer. I use Egg Timer Plus.  Create a 10-minute present and see how many emails you can deal with in just 10 minutes. Do this at least once each day – more often if you can.   As you work through your inbox change the view so that you review mails not only by “Received,” but by “Subject,” and “From”.  Changing your view will help you clear out blocks of email at a time.

I hope these strategies help you tame the monster.  If not, you could consider doing away with email altogether, like they did at Atos.  Check out this post by Liz Lamar.

For more strategies on using email effectively and getting your inbox under control, check out SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better.

If you have other suggestions to add to the list, I’d love to hear them!  Now, I’ve got to go check my email.

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