Your email may be eating into your productivity. Here are some Golden Rules when managing your emails.
In any working week many of us are spending up to 20% of our time reviewing and processing emails. In many cases workflow is simply being pushed around the organisation for no tangible gain.
Here are some rules to save you time.
Rule 1: Never open emails before 10:30 a.m.
In the good old days, we would handle mail at 10:30 a.m. when the mail finally arrived from the mailroom. We thus started the day with scoring a goal—undertaking a service delivery activity. Now the first thing we do is open the email, and suddenly one hour has evaporated. Some of us have not disabled the email alert, so we get interrupted every time a new email arrives.
As a therapy, I suggest not opening your email until after your morning coffee and then look at emails only once or twice more during the day. If something is very important, you will get a phone call. This technique will help you get more 1.5-hour blocks of concentrated time in your day. If you do receive the odd urgent email, you could, as a friend of mine does, scan for these at 8:30 a.m. My friend, however, has the control only to handle these urgent emails and then moves on with the day, leaving the replies to the bulk of the emails to late in the day. For me, even looking at the in-box before 10:30 a.m. is too risky as curiosity wins every time.
Rule 2: Never send emails late at night or at the weekends
There is nothing wrong in having an idea late at night or on the weekend and putting it into an email. The key is to schedule the “send” anytime between 8.00 to 9 am on the next business day. If you would not ring that staff person at 11pm then do not press send. If you do ring them out of office hours, then you need therapy.
In France, they have made it illegal to send work emails over the weekend. The law requires companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer emails. The goals of the law include making sure employees are fairly paid for work and preventing burnout by protecting private time.
As French legislator Benoit Hamon indicated, the law is an answer to the travails of employees who “leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash—like a dog.”
Rule 3: The five-sentence rule
Treat all email responses like text messages and limit them to something you can count easily: five sentences. With only five sentences, the writer is forced to ensure that all terms, conditions, and papers are attached to the email. This has the added benefit of ensuring saving possibly important documents in the document management system.
Rule 4: Have an attention-grabbing header
Make the header the main message of the email. For example: Freeing up more time—reengineering of_____________. Never recycle the header you received in previous correspondence. Make the header more meaningful. If you cannot think of a good email header, maybe you should not send the email.
Rule 5: Embrace “inbox zero”
The “inbox zero” technique has been around for a while. It means that you never have 2,000 emails in your inbox as some sort of primitive to do list. You only have unsorted and unactioned emails that have arrived in the last few hours. This is how it can work:
- The first painful sorting process. Sort by age and delete everything over say ___ months. You will need to recover some emails later, so what. Sort by name and then you are ready to file in your subject areas.
- Set up a folder structure that works for you. I recently met Matthew, a very successful CFO, and he has a “to do” folder broken out by the days in the week. When he goes to a Tuesday morning meeting he knows what emails he needs to look at before attending.
- Spend time blocking those annoying senders by setting up rules. One CEO I know blocks all cc emails
- Only look at emails 2 or 3 times a day when you have freed up enough time, so you can action them in the moment, rather than handle the same email two or three times. Remember the adage “Handle a piece of paper once”, this applies also to emails. That means read, action, delete, read, action, delete until the box is empty. The first view no earlier than 10.30am, see rule 1.
- Target deleting one in four of the newly arrived emails using the “Reading pane” option where you can see the content of each email without opening them. Only when you are regularly deleting emails that you need to get resent are you deleting too much.
- Before giving birth to a chain email, or simply “passing the parcel”. Think, would a phone call be quicker. Or, word the email so that the reader is not expected to respond back. Remember emails are not to be confused with ACTION. An email never got a project completed. It is the actual work carried out by someone that is the key to getting things done.
Rule 6: Only send an email to those people whom you are prepared to phone
Promote yourself by your endeavours, not by your use of broadcast emails, reply all, or copy correspondence. Avoid sending broadcast emails unless you are prepared to call up each person to advise them that there is a key document that they need to read.
Rule 7: If you would not put your words in a letter, do not put them in an email
Far too often, the content of emails, while amusing, is not appropriate. Be careful about being the bearer of silly jokes. Today many people seem to want to be remembered by their joke telling. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a joke, but when the same people send a couple a week, you do wonder what they do all day. Remember, perception rules everything. You do not want to be perceived as a person whose prime focus is to entertain, such as Ricky Gervais in the UK version of The Office. You want to be appreciated in more positive terms.
Rule 8: Master your Email application’s tools section
The experts have been busy improving the ways we can handle emails. The applications you use for emails will have many features you have never opened. Many readers have mastered word and spreadsheet applications, yet they know least about the one application they use the most. Master the new features; it will take a 30-minute session with an expert. You need to know and master:
How to turn off the Outlook automatic notifiers
How to use filters to sort and prioritize ◾
How to get newsletters automatically sent straight to a folder that you access twice weekly
How to set up auto-responders to acknowledge and advise response time
How to use filters, flags, colours, and sorting
Rule 9: Beware of sending a rebuff email
For complex responses, complaints, rebuffs, and the like, draft the email and file in the drafts section of your email application overnight, as you may well have second thoughts. It is a good idea to send these draft emails to your mentor. Many a career has been dented by a poorly thought-out email written in anger.
Rule 10: Monkey-on-the-back emails
Many people are using the email system to pass their workload on to others. In many cases, people contact known experts and ask for their help without having done any research themselves. In other words, they are passing the monkey on their back to the expert.
A colleague of mine, who is an internationally recognized expert, advised me that the best way is to politely thank the sender for the email and then say, “Please call when convenient to discuss.” Based on his experience, this gets rid of 95 percent of the requests.
This is an extract from a book called ‘Don’t say I didn’t tell you’.
The past has great lessons to offer. Whilst technology and the evolving pace of change may lead millennials to thinking that what is ahead of them is unique. In fact, it has all happened before. I am a father in my 60s who has gathered many lessons from the past, and I set them out here for my daughters in the vain hope that they will be a guiding light long after I am physically gone. Some of the suggestions may seem ridiculous at first, but I ask you to chew the crud and make an informed decision later. For a list of topics covered see here.