September 27, 2007

Your Job Description Isn't "Mail Manager"

I had a pretty crummy travel experience on my trip this week in missed flights and too little sleep, but I had an interesting conversation that prompted this post. I had a partner in my travel woes that was sharing with me how she often spent her evenings reading and responding to emails creating a 60 hour work week (thanks for the post idea travel partner).
For a long period in my career I received sometimes 200+ emails per day. I’d spend hours every night reading them all and responding appropriately. After about three years of this I decided there had to be a better way. Below is a combination of my and others tips in how to spend less time on email. They are in no particular order.

The Carbon Copy Rule
Build email rules that help you prioritize what to read. Create a folder called “cc mail” and create a rule that moves any message where you are in the cc: field to this folder. Never read them, they are saved for reference only. You may need to create exceptions for certain people or groups which most email engines allow. If you are nervous about this try it for two weeks. I was nervous about it at first but this single rule cut my email volume by two thirds. I’ve now been doing it for three years and have been asked less than a dozen times if I got an email. Most people cc you on message to feel important or CTA (cover their arse), so not reading it is usually no big deal.

I had a co-worker that joked delete every email you get and if it’s important they’ll send it again. If someone cc’s you on an email and needs a response they will most likely send it again directly to you.

It’s All About Me
Build another email rule that flags any email where you are the only person on the To: field in a specific color (my preference is red). This way you can immediately know which email you probably must read and respond to.

It’s All About Them
If you have certain people that you must read their email set them as an exception to The Carbon Copy Rule and build a rule that flags their email in a specific color so you can see them easily (my preference is green).

The Conversation Stopper
Use email as a method of communication not conversation. Request this of co-workers, employees, and clients. If you need to have conversations pick up the phone and talk to the person.

If you receive a reply email (RE:) quickly scan to see if there are multiple of them with the same subject. Sort your email by subject, select the most recent, and read the entire train starting from the top down. I suggest from the top because you may find quickly that you don’t need to do anything and just delete it. If you make it all the way to the bottom you are reading just to read or you’ll find you need to respond in some way. If it is going to take more than one email pick up the phone. You can most likely then delete the emails with the same subject line. If you follow the next rule all questions in the email will probably have gotten resolved and you won't have to respond at all.

e-mail Is Not On Your Task List (a slight variation on a Tim Ferris rule)
If you don’t have a daily task list before the day, start doing it today. Have three important things you must accomplish that day, and one before 10:00 am. Email should never be on that list. Look at email at 10:00 am, not before. After 10:00 am respond to email that requires immediate response, flag what requires follow-up, file or delete the rest. Schedule times to check and respond to email or you’ll spend 4 hours of every day getting nothing accomplished. Try to read email at 10:00 am, 1:00 pm, and 4:00pm. The 4:00 pm slot lets you respond to any requiring it that day.

Spending one full weekend emptying your email box is not actually accomplishing anything, except maybe generating more email. Avoid this really stupid way to spend your weekend.

Don’t Respond to e-mail on the Weekend (a tip from Tim Sanders)
This is one of the hardest things to do and I know from personal experience. But it is vital to managing your email volume. It is also a good habit if you are a manager because your employees will emulate your behavior. Sending email on the weekend sets the expectation that you’ll read and respond to email on the weekend. If someone really needs to get in touch with you they will find a way other than email.

The next step is to apply this rule to responding to email after hours. I promise, if someone really needs to get in touch with you they will find a way.

If you have other tricks and tips on managing the email nightmare post it for the world to benefit from your wisdom.

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