If I’ve learned nothing else about email, it’s this

I’ve enjoyed writing about emails this week, and if I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that there are an incredible number of articles on the web about how to manage emails. The one thing which comes up again and again, especially from people who seem to have their business lives worked out efficiently, is that you shouldn’t be checking email every few minutes, but you should be responding to it quickly when you do check it. So, only check your email when you know you’ll have the time to reply and clear your inbox. This makes sense.

“Ah”, people will say, “but customers and colleagues use email to contact me urgently, so I can’t just check my email twice a day”. To which I’d have to say you need a better way for customers to contact you if it’s urgent (seriously: email?); and if that’s truly the case, what happens when you’re in a meeting, or on the road? I bet your emails aren’t being checked every five minutes then, yet the world goes on.

Keeping your inbox at zero should be the ultimate goal. This might involve moving emails into pending categories, but it’s the best way to eliminate email stress.

A controversial approach, if you really can’t keep your inbox empty, is to use a last-in, first-out technique. It’s better to reply promptly to important stuff and not at all to the stuff which hangs around the bottom of the pile (because it usually does so for a reason). The less desirable alternative is to be slow or unpredictable to reply to everything. Also, unimportant stuff which you leave long enough either comes back (“did you get my message…?”) or dies a natural death.

What are your top tips?

Discussion

  1. Geoff Noake

    Interesting comments on email management. I agree, it’s good to keep your in-box clear but I still struggle to do it. I once had an ’email crash’ and for some reason the entire inbox went into the ether and being Pop3 there was no back up. Probably 50 or so emails were lost. Strangely, after the initial shock had worn off, looking at an empty in-box was quite therapeutic. The world hadn’t ended at that very moment, the sun was still shining, everything remained the same.
    What did I do next? Emailed three of four people who’s most recent emails, I recalled, were important and they resent them to me.
    As for the rest, gone. But not the end of the world, though!

  2. Andy Pye

    Great series of articles Chris. The problem with email is that it forces someone else’s priorities onto you. You wake up each day with a plan for the day, and email intrudes and you can end up “doing” email instead of focussing on what you meant to do.

    So my Top Tip is simply:
    Don’t look at email until 4pm in the afternoon.

    That will mean that you will have done most of your true priorities before getting sucked in. The additional benefit is that you will be spared the endless threads going backwards and forwards all day, all adding to the email volume. People will receive your reply just before they are going home, so will probably leave it until tomorrow to reply. Or you won’t see the reply until the next day (unless you carry on checking in your private time!).

    Do I always achieve it? Sadly no, but the days when I do achieve it are usually the days when I can look back and say “I really did something useful today.”

  3. Ross Fraser

    I have used the same business e-mail address for 14 years and it does get out there. I receive 200 e-mails per day with 150 receiving a Shift-Delete. Always a good way to remove the clutter.

    E-mail is a great tool and not a way of life. As a manufacturing business we export 60% of parts manufactured in the UK and have customers in Europe, Asia and North America. E-mail is a useful communication tool when the other party may have finished their business day or is perhaps is in bed for the evening.

    The biggest issue with e-mail is that it has become the default method of communication with an expectation of an immediate reply. The number of times I have discussed a problem with someone only to get the stock reply, “but I have sent him/her an e-mail”. Let’s remove the e-mail ping-pong (reply to reply to reply) and pick up the phone. The number of things that can be resolved with a 2 minute telephone discussion and then confirmed in a concise e-mail is remarkable.

    My vote is for less e-mail and more discussion!

    PS: Chris Rand e-mails are always read and sometimes filled for future sharing.

  4. Dave G

    Some good advice in the articles and comments above.

    A few tips, all centered around one simple idea that I hold in high value “invest the time to learn the tools” for which Google search and YouTube in particular are a gold mine.
    So, some Outlook tips –
    – Learn to ‘group by conversation’ – can save a huge amount of effort and prevent replying to each message, or replying to the oldest first, also you may spot the answer is already there.
    – Use Rules to highlight emails where “I am the ONLY person on the To line”, “where I am in the To line with others” and “only in n cc” using different colours. Then prioritise in that order.
    – Always set an out of office with other contact details to try and fend off enquiries when you return, using the group by conversation approach to check if any action is needed.

    On that last note, my favourite out of office reply from a US colleague said something like “I am out of the office on vacation, I will not be replying to your email, it has been deleted, if it is important please contact me again when I return”. If only I had the balls to use that one occasionally!

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