Email is supposed to be a blessing, not a curse. If you would have told people fifteen years ago that email would be just as vital or more vital than the phone was at that time they would have laughed at you. Unfortunately email today is probably the biggest consumer of a normal business day with meetings being the only exception for certain people. Taking back this valuable time and putting the production back into our day is critical. Nothing is more intimidating than coming back from vacation and knowing that you will have hundreds of emails waiting on you. I’ve seen data (although I can’t find any of it off-hand when I want to use it) that shows that it takes twenty-five minutes to get into a creative and focused mindset. If you are constantly being interrupted by things like email then chances are you will NEVER get into this zone.
It’s been a while since I wrote some tips on how to optimize your RSS habits, but I think it’s time for another “take control of your life” post. So here are ten rules I operate by to manage my inbox and still be productive.
#1 Keep it short
I’ll keep this one simple. If it will take you more than a paragraph to respond to an email then pick up the phone. It can be extremely difficult to understand context of a conversation through email. The more you ramble the higher the chance you will upset or confuse someone.
#2 ONLY Check Your Inbox a Few Times a Day
I make it a rule to check my work inbox four times a day…first thing in the morning, immediately before or after lunch, at the end of the work day, and before I go to bed. This is plenty for me, and if you are honest with yourself it is probably enough for you too.
#3 Never Respond Immediately
I know this is going to be controversial, but you NEVER want to get to the point where people feel like they can get a hold of you and get an immediate response. Where this leads is lots of wasted productive time as you go back and forth with people over email. Also, being in the web/tech field people have a tendency to take advantage of us because we just know how to do some of these technical things. It’s not because we know magic; it’s just because we have spent the time to figure it out. Yes, you want to be helpful, but it is an endless sink when people know that they can email you anytime all day long and you will tell them how to do things. We have Google at our fingertips to answer questions for a reason. Encourage others to choose a easier way to find solutions without having to bother you.
#4 When Upset, Don’t Rush a Response
This goes right along with #3 above. When you get an email that gets you upset or angry the WORST thing that you can do is respond immediately. Ignore it, mark it as unread, take a walk or work on something else. Let some time pass so that you can calm down and regain your composure before even trying to type a response.
#5 Blast Emails are to Educate, No Response Necessary
If you are included in a blast this is to inform you of something. There is no need to respond.
#6 Carbon Copied (CC) means FYI, Definitely No Response Necessary
Don’t jump in the middle of a conversation unless it’s absolutely necessary, and even then, only reply to the specific party you need to communicate with. I’m not even going to begin to get into the horror stories I’ve witnessed of email chains getting out of control.
#7 Be Responsive… Just Not Too Responsive
Try to make it a priority to answer email within 24 hours. Pretty simple. Don’t rush it but make sure that you respond accordingly. Remember email isn’t your only job and you do have other deadlines to stay on top of.
#8 If You Didn’t Respond in 24 Hours, It Probably Wasn’t That Important
Email moves at the speed of light. Things happen and are over before you know it. Once again there are way to many other important things to focus on instead of trying to remember what you were doing two weeks ago with a certain email. Just save yourself the trouble and hit delete.
#9 Take Advantage of Delivery Options
I’m probably giving away a big secret here, but using the strategy of not delivering email until after 5PM works wonders! Not only does it make it “appear” that you are working late (which honestly we are probably doing anyway), but it protects us from the illusion of being always available. This can easily be tied to #3, never respond immediately. The delay delivery options can be your best friend. If you get an email while you are cleaning out other things it’s ok to respond, but maybe you should delay the delivery for a few hours. Remember, at this time you are trying to work through your emails, not instigate more.
#10 Once Resolved, Delete
There is simply no reason to keep gigabytes of old email. Sure, you could archive it and save it for later or even try to organize it, but honestly how often do you return to old emails? Take email links and add them as web bookmarks or to your Delicious account (you do have one, don’t you?). Take instructional emails and add them to a wiki where they are easily archived and searched by others. Take events and copy the information to your calendar. Finally, like I stated in #8 if it’s a few days or weeks old then it must not have been that important.
Bonus: If You Are Using Outlook, Install Xobni
For me and the nature of the work that I do now I talk to individuals all over the country that I have never met before. Xobni is a nice plugin that provides information about individuals with which you have exchanged emails. It attempts to link to an individuals LinkedIn profile, Facebook profile, their company’s Hoovers account, and even Skype. And Xobni even has a powerful search interface. The ability to see an individual’s face can be a huge insight into what the person on the other end of the conversation is like.
These are just my rules and not everyone’s email situation is the same. Obviously, if you work in a help desk environment then it’s crucial that you respond to emails immediately. But I would still argue, coming from someone who worked in a help desk environment for over three years, that rule #1 is extremely important, especially the part about picking up the phone.
So what are your rules of the inbox? What tips or advice did I leave out that people should remember?
Some Additional Reading on Email Management
- Email becomes a dangerous distraction
- Manage all your email accounts with Gmail
- Five Methodologies for Dealing with Email Overload
Photo Credit: Castle Geyser Eruption by dominiqs