Email is one of the banes of corporate existence. Before email, we had voicemail (and still do). Before that, it was the memo basket, complete with intra-office envelopes with the little string thing to keep it closed. Email is obviously much more efficient, but it is one of the worst communication mediums when you are trying to understand more than the words on the screen (such as intent). Let’s discuss how to process email.

My social Network, by luc legay

My social Network, by luc legay

Everyone complains that they get too much email. It’s not that they get more than anyone else, they are simply poor at managing their email. They are on too many lists, they are too disorganized to find emails when they need them, and they probably have several thousand emails just sitting there in their inbox. Everyone gets lots of email, which is why you have to hack your email to make it useful. So the next time someone tells you they didn’t see your email because they get too much, just remember that’s an excuse and you are looking at someone who is poor at managing email. Every business degree should include a class on how to use email, but alas…

The first thing you need to do is protect your inbox with a vengeance. Do not let it be your task list, or the digital manifestation of that junk drawer of stuff you have in the kitchen. I strive to always finish my week at a (near) zero inbox. For you non-believers, it is absolutely possible and you will feel much satisfaction seeing that (0) for an email count. For processing, here is a guideline:

  • Process it in batches multiple times per day, not real time. Turn off that alert that reminds you that you have a new message.
  • Build automation through filters. If you really like a specific mailing list, make a rule to send emails from that list to a separate folder to review in batches later.
  • If you CC me on an email, I throw that into a different folder (remember, CC is just letting people know. Don’t address people directly and put them in CC, you mean to put them in the TO field). I’ll file/delete later.
  • When processing, follow David Allen’s guide:
    • If you can do whatever task is included with the email in 2 minutes or less, do it.
    • If you need more time to do it, defer it to a later date (by scheduling time to do it) and move it out of your inbox.
    • If you can delegate it, do that.
    • If you don’t need it, delete it.

One thing I will say is that you can delete more email than you realize. If you don’t believe me, go back and look at some of the things you have filed away. Some have temporal use (auto-archiving after a period of time can be very helpful) that expire after a few months, and others are completely useless but are saved for some reason. I delete more email now than I ever used to, and the only negative consequence has been figuring out how to fill that extra drive space I saved.

Fire Drill, by chipmonkey

Fire Drill, by chipmonkey

Always respond to every email that has you in the TO field, or is mentioning your name. Any request from an individual should not go unanswered unless it is automated SPAM. Example, outside rep asking for your interest in something? Respond yes or no. Most outside reps will keep hitting you up, further wasting your time and clogging your inbox. Another example, SPAM from a vendor inviting you to some party or telling you about a product. Read/delete/unsubscribe, but response is probably not necessary.

If the person is inside your company, you should always respond. If you can’t take their request, politely decline or point them in the right direction. You do not want to be a black hole of communication in your organization. This is one area where all those boring conversations around corporate goals and strategy can come in handy. If the person is asking you to do something that doesn’t line up with those, then it becomes easier to justify the decline. Ignoring email will alienate your co-workers and makes people think you are disorganized and unreliable. It’s OK to say no to requests, but don’t ignore them.

Sometimes you don’t mean to ignore them, but in the best intentions of reducing the people on the list you end up doing this. Example: Bob introduces you to Alice. Bob doesn’t care what happens after the introduction, but he wants to make sure that you are taking advantage of the introduction to Alice. The simple solution to this is to say, “Thanks for the invite Bob (moving you to BCC)!” and then moving his email to the BCC field. Therefore, no future replies will get to him, but you close the loop with him such that he knows things are moving forward. You can do this with large groups as well, just let them know they are moved to BCC.

Now that we have some ground rules for managing our email, next we will discuss the communication medium of email with its challenges.

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