I had a great 4th of July holiday, like I do for most holidays. Want to know why? Because it’s one of the few days each year I get my email inbox and saved folders down to either zero messages or very close.
On average I get 100-200 messages every day. This is after my SPAM service kills off another 100+ junk messages. I use many tools to manage email every day. I use rules to sort various messages to folders based on who sends them, what the subject is, whether I’m carbon copied (cc) or emailed directly. I even use a service that “tries” to figure out whether the message is important or not.
I feel compelled to use every spare minute to check for new messages and ensure I’m not missing something important. While I write this column I will probably stop and check my email three or four times. Before I go into a meeting I check my email; when I get out of the meeting I check it again. I even check my messages from time to time in the middle of meetings. I’m known to check email in the car (not while driving of course, but as I get in and out of the car). Even worse I’ve been known to check them during dinner with my wife— Sometimes without even realizing that I’m doing it!
So how productive and focused am I really being with all this email checking? I suppose that depends on what my job is. For people in many positions, keeping up with email is one of their top priorities. This is the case with the engineers who manage our helpdesk, because many of our service tickets are opened and updated via email. A person with an inside CSR (Customer Service Representative) position may require up-to-the-minute management of email to handle quotes, approvals and questions that come in by email. But let’s say you’re an outside sales rep or a project engineer. Both of those jobs require focusing a considerable amount of time on face-to-face interactions or tasks at hand. Can we really expect these people to answer email as quickly as the others I listed?
My job has evolved from a support and project engineer, to a team leader, to virtual CIO (Chief Information Officer), and now to CEO (Chief Executive Officer); however, my email habits haven’t changed throughout this evolution. So I want to acknowledge that much of what I’m saying, and will say, in the rest of this article is directed squarely in the mirror; but I hope in some way it also helps you.
So let’s go back to the beginning. When email first came out it was something you sent when you wanted to communicate information or wanted a response when the recipient had the time to answer. We didn’t get upset when a week went by before we heard those three little words: “You Have Mail!” We would also check our email just a few times a day.
Now more and more we use email like we used to use the phone. We use it to delegate items to others, sometimes with just a few short sentences, hoping this will be enough to avoid taking the time to speak face to face or over the phone. Or we use it to set up a meeting to discuss a particular topic, expecting a swift response as if we were speaking face to face or over the phone. We’ll even send five or six messages back and forth on one subject in the name of productivity, instead of picking up the phone or walking down the hall to talk with someone. In this way, we believe that we’re allowing the recipient to prioritize and manage our requests in the best manner possible, but in reality we almost always expect instantaneous feedback. I’m guilty of all of this.
So what can we all do, no matter our position, to gain productivity using communication technology in a sensible fashion? I believe we need to reset our expectations around the tools we use and response times. We need to accept email for what it is, a place where many requests, questions and messages go to die a slow death. (However, I do hope this article gets read in due time knowing it isn’t a top priority for you.)
If we need to communicate complex thoughts or needs we shouldn’t put them in an email. I have a three-message rule: If I exchange three messages with someone on particular subject within a short window of time, I pick up the phone. We shouldn’t expect people to monitor their email in real time either. (I just checked and no one has emailed me in the past three minutes!). If we need someone’s attention immediately, we should pick up the phone or walk down the hall and speak with them.
Since many of us don’t work in the same office this can be a challenge. In this case, when we need someone’s immediate attention, a phone call is usually the best way to reach him or her. One great tool I’ve recently embraced is our internal instant messaging service. Not the instant messaging we use for chat requests from our family members and friends, the one setup at Infinity Network Solutions that’s connected to our calendars and phone system. So when a staff member asks “Got a Minute?” to have a meeting with me or they have a quick question that can be answered with a short response, they can check to see if I’m “ free” on our instant messaging service and send me a short message to see if I’m available to chat. I’m often busy working on another project and will connect with them either later or setup a specific time to meet with them. It would be great if we could connect this system to all our partners and clients (we can and do with a few) so we can extend that presence to people outside our organization who are part of our day-to-day operations. After all, they’re the reason we’re here.
I mentioned earlier about the different ways I try to “slice and dice” my email to keep it manageable; I believe this truly does work, so I wanted to list a few of the tricks I’ve had success with when using Outlook and Exchange. Many of my tricks have equivalents if you use Google or another email service, so I am sure those of you not on Outlook/Exchange can find ways to incorporate them if you desire.
First, an important thing to know is if you’re using your Inbox as your “To-Do” list, then you’ve already failed. I setup folders for different issues and projects. While email shouldn’t be a document-management system, let’s face it, for many of us it is. So if we’re going to do this let’s at least setup folders for messages from different people, companies and groups. This way we don’t have 10,000+ messages in our inbox. (I have a friend who does.) This prevents us from “fielding” all these stored messages in our inbox.
Secondly, I deliver messages directly to folders for groups of people, mainly board and peer-group members, so I don’t even see the new messages without going to their particular folder. I also have a folder setup named “CC” at the top of my sub folders’ list, and a rule in Outlook that specifies that any message I’m “cc” on goes into that folder. This way I know that these messages are for informational purposes only and don’t require me to immediately review or address.
The newest tool I’ve recently used is SaneBox (www.sanebox.com). I’m still not 100% sure of the value level of this service so I’m not advocating its use. But what the service does is automate many of the rules that you might create in Outlook. It “monitors” my email account and attempts to guess and eventually learn where messages should be moved based on user actions and content. It works great for newsletters — they all go into a folder that I review once a day. I keep the important ones there for one week and try and review them as I’m able. It also works great for messages I want to “blackhole.” What it doesn’t handle well are messages that are put in one place only once and another at other times. It does also help me with my 4-D rule (Deal with it, Delegate it, Delay it or Delete it). I have folders where I can store messages and have them appear in my inbox at later as “new” again. This way I can forget about them until a later date without forgetting to read them.
So I hope this has given you some “food for thought” and some valuable email strategies. I plan to continue responding to those who need my assistance (it’s just my nature), and I’ll work to make these interactions more personal. I won’t allow my email to drive my schedule, but will use it to enable my schedule and amplify my reach and speed of communication.
How do you handle your email? Do you have any other suggestions? If so, please email me and share them!