Do you feel guilty and overwhelmed and obsessively attracted to your inbox all at the same time? Well, 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 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.
- Don’t check your email first thing in the morning. 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, start your day in your calendar. 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.
- 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.
- Do it. Defer it. Delegate it. Ditch 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, for this “2-minute rule.” If you can’t do it in two minutes then you must: 1) Defer it to another time when 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 3) Ditch it. Every single email in your inbox will fit into one of these categories.
- Don’t answer email immediately when it comes in. OK, I know you’re thinking, “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 and respond rather than merely react; and you’ve not created the expectation that you’ll provide an immediate answer to any question your client (or anyone else for that matter) sends.
- Send fewer emails. Duh. Send fewer = Get fewer. (Note to self: Remember #5.)
- 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.
- Use tools and plug-ins. Outlook plug-ins like SimplyFile (the one I use) or mailstrom can really help you get your inbox organized and under control.
- 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.
- Use just the subject line when you can. Be careful with this one. Don’t just start sending subject-line-only emails or people may wonder what’s going on with you! 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.
- 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 paralyzing. So, start small. Make it a 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. Set a timer for 10 minutes, 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 “Date,” but by “Subject,” and “From.” Changing your view will help you clear out blocks of email at a time.
How do you slay your email dragon?