“You Have Email”

How often do you stop what you were doing to look at the email that just came?  The little pop-up that shows you the new message is very compelling and can easily draw you away from the work at hand.  When you get hundreds of emails a day this becomes a major productivity drain.  So what to do?

To manage your email instead of letting them manage you there are two key elements to consider.  First is to triage your inbox so that you focus on the important urgent items first.  Second is to limit your time in email to specific timeframes during the day.  Third is what you do with the email you get.  Let’s look at each closer.

Triage for Email:

  1. Deal with the messages that are from critical people first.  These could be your boss, a client or a peer sending you information you need.
  2. Handle the messages that are related to the important urgent items on your to-do list.
  3. Delete the junk emails.
  4. Next handle the emails that are linked to urgent but not important items on your to-do list.
  5. The last emails are the ones that were sent to you for information only.

Once you identified the most critical emails in the inbox you know where to focus your time and attention.  By knowing the important and urgent items from your to-do list you can direct your efforts where the most benefit will be.

If you are using Outlook there are several great tools that can help you triage even faster.  These are under the rules category.  For critical people you can change the color of their messages so you can quickly pick them out of your inbox.  You can also set up rules that drop messages that are sent routinely for information only to a specific folder.  That folder will then be highlighted as having new messages and you can get to them when you have the time.  It removes clutter from the inbox.  Also, a good tool can be to flag a message with a reminder if you need to follow-up at a later date.  This means you don’t have to remember what to do, the system will let you know when the time to act is due.  You can also link emails to your to-do list for future action.

Time for Email:

We are so inundated with electronic communications it can take your time away from the actual work you have to accomplish  One great way to manage this is to set aside specific times each day to handle the email.  One schedule could be:

  1. First thing in the morning
  2. Shortly before lunch
  3. Late afternoon – before leaving for the day

Now some people are in positions that require more immediate responses to questions so the above schedule doesn’t work for them at all.  So another version is to look at email once an hour, say on the hour.  Spend 10 minutes triaging the inbox and answering items that require immediate response only.  Then allow time as outlined above to deal with the rest of the emails.  This allows you to respond quickly as needed and yet gives you 50 minutes every hour for other activities that need to be done.

Maybe some other schedule will work for you, just focus on setting time aside for email and then you won’t feel the urge to answer everything as it hits your inbox.  You are back in control of your time.

Handling Each Email:

Now that you have a system for identifying the emails that need your attention and have set aside time to handle it all, now what?  How many times do you open an email?  This is the electronic equivalent of handling paper multiple times.  It is very inefficient.  Handle each message once if possible, twice if you need to gather information to respond.

Keep your inbox clean, it should have only new items or items that require additional work to close out.  Once they are addressed, file them in a folder.  This gets rid of clutter and allows you to focus on what needs to be done.

The critical messages that you are handling first – can you respond immediately?  If so respond and file the email in a folder out of your inbox.  Does it need additional work to handle it?  If so flag it or add it to your to-do list with a due date.  If you need to send out a message to get information do it right away to get the ball rolling.  Respond with a time of completion to let the sender know you are working on it if appropriate.

The items that are for information only, read them then file appropriately.  Leaving them in you inbox will create a sense that there is something more to do with it.  If you are going to forward it to someone else, do so immediately and then file it.

Strive for keeping your inbox limited to the number of items that you can realistically handle.  For me if I have to scroll to another page in my inbox I lose track of items.  I like to have no more than about 40 items in my inbox so I can see what’s there and what I have to do.  It keeps me from being overwhelmed with things that call for my attention.

Please share with me your tricks for managing your email.

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