When you turn on your computer, do you feel like you are trying to take a sip from a firehose of emails? Are you unable to actually do any "work" because you are attempting to reply to your email? If so, you are not alone. David Scarola, Vice President of The Alternative Board, recently conducted a survey regarding time management and found the number one activity business owners feel they are wasting time on is... email. Many of my clients receive tidal waves of incoming email on a regular basis. Boomerang CEO Alex Moore notes "It can take 64 seconds to fully recover from noticing an email. The average person gets 147 emails a day, so that can be a lot of interruptions and wasted time" time that could be better spent completing projects, attending to details and interacting with clients. Below are 21 specific best practices for taming the tide of emails so you have time to actually be productive.
Immediately: Right now, right away, within moments of finishing this article, there are things you can do to take the edge off your email:
• Sound Off: Kelley Kitley, Serendipitous Psychotherapy, hears from many of her high-powered clients about anxiety associated with too much email, "some even wake up in the middle of the night to check email to avoid waking up" to hundreds of items in their inbox. She suggests "turning off the audible ping" and only checking during "specific times to avoid the obsession."
• Schedule Email Checks: Kenneth Ashe, Prudential Financial, knows time is a valuable commodity and that it is best to "not read every email as soon as it arrives." Perpetual checking of email distracts you from your current task and creates "unnecessary stress." It is best to schedule when you will download your incoming emails. "Set aside time specifically for answering emails and assessing new requests."
• Pick Your Priorities: Simon Slade, CEO of SaleHoo, aptly notes "emails arrive chronologically, which is an inefficient and ineffective organization method. Pull assignments out of emails and add them to a task list." Doing so allows you to prioritize and focus on what is most important first.
• End of Day Double-Check: Every morning Chad Kimball takes the time to review all new emails and "marks the ones that are a first priority." Then towards the end of the day you should review to be sure "the most important emails have been taken care of and aren't just buried under the day's mail."
• Opt Out: Tim Thoelecke Jr., President of InOut Labs, shares his secret: "I do a lot of unsubscribing."
• Kindly Decline: Ashley Orndorff, Visual Impact Group, offers some insight from the other side of the fence. Without a firm no, many marketing firms will redouble their efforts to contact you. Instead of just deleting, Orndorff recommends "if your goal is to save time, it's worth the 30 seconds to type out a quick response to indicate you are not interested. You may get a response back about an appropriate timeline for follow-up if your reasoning is time-sensitive, but you won't be overwhelmed or feel stalked."
• Find Your Flags: Ajay Prasad, Founder of GMR Web Team, prefers to "keep unfinished tasks marked as unread, even if you've already opened it." This allows you to quickly keep track of emails which still require your attention and a response.
• Be Brief: Mitzi Weinman, TimeFinder Author & Speaker, recommends making the most of your messages. Take the added time to be sure your emails "begin with essential deadlines, key information, and actions that the recipients must take." And when no response is needed be clear about that too with "NRN."
Within The Next Week: Mark your calendar, schedule blocks of time over the course of the upcoming week, and implement the ideas which will work for you:
• File in Folders: Trish McCall, A Design Partnership, knows organization is key and carefully sorts emails into their specific sub-folder. "It gives me an internal sense of satisfaction to see the number of inbox items dwindle as I move through my day." The added plus is that the emails are easily located when needed.
• Auto-File: Joe Palko, Americaneagle.com, notes patterns as he receives emails. For internal emailers, he "creates a rule that sorts the emails from that person into a folder." Once done, prioritize your time to review these specific folders as you see fit.
• Reply, Refile, Contact, Delete: Photographer Megan Tsang adds a bit of customization to pre-formatted replies to potential client emails. She moves "the email to a folder labeled Potential Clients." If they have not responded, the potential clients receive a weekly email for two weeks before being deleted.
• Laser-focused Response: Even without technology, Julian Cordero, Attorney at Cordero Law LLC, contacts clients quickly with precise questions such as availability, best number and nature of the conversation. Doing so "minimizes the amount of emails that we have to go through before I finally am able to understand what the client needs."
• Do or Delete: Stephanie Freeman, Director of Arts and Humanities, quickly pinpoints an on-going source of stress. "The worst emails for me are the ones from external sources--people who wanted me to do something for them." Having a very rigid method works. If it is not possible, a kind "I can't do this" is sent and the request is deleted. If someone else can help, the email is forwarded. Lastly, the sender is notified a response will be forthcoming and the email is "placed in a folder marked To-Be-Completed in 30 Days or Less." Then "I stick to it."
• Build A Buffer: Christina Kumar, entrepreneur, wisely uses her computer auto-reply to her strategic advantage. Her outgoing automatic message tells others how many days it may take for a response. This allows her, and her clients, to "prioritize what's important" and gives them a "buffered time-frame with which to respond."
• Don't Default to Email: Lori Scherwin, Founder of Strategize That, knows that sometimes going old-school is the best option. She advocates avoiding on-going email exchanges by "running down the hall or picking up the phone" and "resolving the topic with a 5-minute conversation." This type of face-to-face or ear-to-ear exchange also avoids "communication mishaps such as words taken out of context, tone read into requests misconstrued, and accountability for next steps vague." In addition to fewer emails, there is the added interpersonal "benefit of improving your relationships over time."
• Compile and Communicate: Maura Thomas, founder of Regain Your Time, takes face-to-face to the next level. "Rather than emailing every time you think of something, create a Talk-To list for that person. As you think of things you need to communicate, create a list along with whatever you need to say." Doing so avoids multiple pesky emails as well as establishes an efficient agenda for your time together.
Within The Next Month: Speak with your colleagues, talk with your boss, and add any of these topics to the agenda of your next staff meeting:
• SOPs for Emails: Gain consensus among your colleagues. Wendy Kuhn, of Break Through Consulting, advises all work groups should have an agreed upon "email policy ensure[ing] that everyone understands expectations within the organization or team regarding email." This policy can and should be revisited regularly.
• Dissuade Groundhog Day: Dayne Shuda, Founder of Ghost Blog Writers, discovered they were able to limit multiple emails by "creating procedures or creating a policy." This information can be shared in an automatic email reply, included in instructions, posted on your website or disseminated in a newsletter.
• Simplify Scheduling: Ahmed Elsayyad, of Elsayyad Medical, minimizes emails by using an "artificially intelligent (AI) personal assistant to schedule meetings. The service is completely free and prevents all of the email back and forth required to schedule a meeting" by including "best times and locations" that fit within your schedule and preferred venues.
Within The Next two Months: Think strategically, consult with IT, and opt to implement technologies to ease your email:
• Mode of Messaging: Kyle Olson, Digital Third Coast, is a "big proponent of using organizational instant messaging software to avoid cumbersome email chains." His organization uses the IM per specific projects as it allows colleagues working on that particular project to communicate in real time. Opting for IM over email has the added bonus of reducing "inbox clutter by as much as 50% on high communication days."
• Store in Cloud: Morten Brogger, CEO Huddle, finds "one way to tremendously reduce email is to implement a cloud collaboration technology." This virtual work-space for a project team allows you to "store all your important files, manage comments and approvals, and can even set tasks to keep the projects on track." Chris Walker, Retaliate 1st, agrees. By using a third party communications platform they were able to "cut our internal weekly emails from over 2167 down to 1187 after only 4 weeks."
As you choose which of these best practices will work for you, know that disconnecting from email altogether is important too. As Dmitri Leonov, VP of Growth at SaneBox, notes "if you don't allow yourself time to disconnect and recover, the often self-inflicted pressure will steadily build and build, leaving you more exhausted and disengaged over time. Multiply this by weeks, months, and years and you're bound to not only build resentment toward your job, but also not be as good at it." Of course, working for an organization who values work-life balance helps. William Bauer, Managing Director of Royce Leather Gifts, minimizes off-hour email overload by instituting a "blackout mode from half an hour before employees' shifts start until half an hour after they leave for the day." Emergencies are dealt with via phone and text.
This brings us to a last point to ponder: email, because it is so instant often creates the impression that all responses should be immediate. What truly separates successful professionals is their ability to differentiate between email urgency and actual emergency.