NO SUCH THING AS AN EMAIL EMERGENCY
The emergency broadcast system is not going to send you an email when aliens attack.
If someone is having a heart attack, you’re going to dial 911, you’re not going to send an email.
There is no such thing as an email emergency.
Even if your job is exclusively or mostly about customer service and answering emails, it’s still not an emergency. It may be very urgent, but nobody is going to die because of a few minute or even a few hour delay in getting a response.
With that in mind, these are my suggested tips for managing your use of email to streamline it and tame it as much as possible.
15 WAYS TO IMPROVE HOW + WHEN YOU USE E-MAIL
1. Check e-mail only when you have the time to review and reply to it.
The first rule and really the most important rule is, do not open e-mails unless you have time to process them and answer them as well.
At best, you’re just wasting that time reading the email because you have to go back and read it again when you’re ready to respond to it.
At worst, you’re going to read something that upsets you that you don’t have time to deal with and it’s going to throw you off. You may be so upset, that you need to leave the room or forward the offending email to somebody else for them to review, or compose an angry reply which hopefully you do not send.
Let me stress this again: if the content in the email is too emotionally charged for you, never press SEND for any reply composed in the heat of the moment. Give yourself a cooling-off period to review and edit again BEFORE sending.
You should have regularly scheduled times on your calendar to read and reply to email, the exception being if your job is primarily to read and reply to emails. For the rest of us, we need to only be in our inbox when we need to be in our inbox.
Within those regularly scheduled email appointments that you’ve made with yourself, you should set a timer and then start and finish dealing with each message as you read it.
If the email requires additional research or somebody else’s eyes on it and you can’t complete your response in the moment, you should either create a to-do list task to finish the email tagging anyone else who will now have deliverables do or add it to your tickler file so you address it methodically.
Excluding the above exceptions, these three steps should guide your e-mail process:
- Read it.
- Reply to it.
- File it (or trash it).
The only emails I keep in file are the ones that are a part of a paper trail for a project or a client or some other event where documentation may be needed in the future.
Email alerts and any simple correspondence that confirms the date and time of a non-professional meeting, i.e. meeting a friend for coffee at Starbucks, do not need to be saved.
2. Check e-mail on demand—disable automatic checking.
When you are NOT checking e-mail, close your e-mail program completely, turn off automatic mail checking and turn off all announcement features, such as sounds or pop-up screens that herald the arrival of e-mail.
Other than a barking dog, there’s little to alert us that the postal carrier has arrived. Email would benefit from the same treatment.
You don’t need all of your devices flashing and beeping and chirping at you throughout the day. Even something as subtle as your screen flashing on or off with a notification will interrupt you and grab your focus.
“There’s no such thing as an email emergency.” Click To Tweet
3. Don’t read and answer your e-mail throughout the day.
Establish a particular time or times each day and an appropriate duration for the review and answering of e-mail. Set a timer, and when the time is up, you’re finished.
The only time when I veer from this protocol is when I’m traveling and that is because my typical schedule is disrupted on travel days. So when I have a few minutes in transit or at an airline gate, I will check email and try to get a few answers off in those windows of time.
I choose not to be online when I am flying.
I’m not an attorney or someone whose work often has very tight turnaround times so it feels acceptable to me to give myself that break.
If your work demands that you be connected all the time during business hours, make the appropriate choice.
4. Don’t answer e-mail at your most productive time of day.
Answer the following question: I’m most productive between ___________ and ___________.
Now that you’ve defined it, that time is sacrosanct. Do not answer e-mails or take on conflicting commitments during this time.
For me, I most productive in the morning. It’s when I write—I’m writing this in the morning. By midday I’m still capable of critical thinking but my biggest burst of creativity and focused thought happens early in the day.
So I make it a habit not to check email first thing in the morning.
5. Inbox means inbox.
Your inbox should show only unread messages. It is not a task list, a shopping list, or a reminder area for lingering “to-do” items.
Figure out some other way to store emails that need your attention rather than just allowing them to stockpile in your inbox.
Otherwise, any important emails will just keep getting pushed down by new emails.
You will tell yourself one of your 200 Lies—an amazing story about how over the weekend you’re going to sit down and clean out your inbox. I’m willing to bet that will never happen.
6. Set up your e-mail program to manage your e-mail as much as possible.
So, as much as I don’t like notifications that are directed to get my attention and pull me off task, I totally love the ability of the email application itself to sort emails before I even look at them.
If you are not using your email applications built-in sorting tool, you’re wasting time.
What ever email application you’re using, you can configure it to presort your emails before they even land in your inbox.
My inbox typically only contains emails from people I don’t have an existing relationship with—whether that means they are people who work for a client but I haven’t met these individuals yet, or they are prospective client or other new contact.
Once it seems like communication with these people will be ongoing, I will create a ‘rule’ or ‘filter’ and a sub-folder for them so they can get out of the inbox.
It is very easy to configure email ‘rules’ or ‘filters’ to direct emails to specific folders based on sender, subject, keyword, and/or content.
A quick online search for “setting up rules or filters for X email application” should give you several tutorial choices. Choose the one that seems the easiest to follow and within minutes you should have several of them set up.
Then, when someone crosses the line from stranger to consistent communicator, you can create a rule for them or their company in real time to keep your system up-to-date.
7. The more e-mails you answer, the more e-mails you receive.
You may have an opinion about lots of things, but it’s probably a good idea to keep most of those to yourself. You do not need to weigh in on every email, particularly ones in which you were CCed or BCCed.
Train yourself NOT to respond to e-mails that don’t require a response and you will see the volume of email going down.
8. Reply when necessary.
While many e-mails don’t require a response, some do.
Even if the reply is “no”, “no, thanks”, or “I can’t”, don’t leave someone hanging.
Remember, the only thing better than good news is bad news fast.
If you can’t help but know someone who can, forward it onto the appropriate person and CC the sender.
That’s a win, win for everyone.
9. Read the entire message thread before responding.
Ever answered an e-mail only to discover that someone else had previously answered it? Save time and face by being thorough before you push send.
10. Use complete information in the subject line.
Avoid cute personal shorthand, private languages or overly abbreviated subjects, such as “update”, “checking in”, or “status”. Be thorough and succinct, to the point, and direct. You’ll help the recipient anticipate content and ensure an accurate response.
11. Update subject line when changing the thread or content.
When you’ve completed a communication thread, start a new thread with a new subject line even if you’ve pulled up an older e-mail and are replying to it as a way to get your recipient’s email address.
Feel free to revise the subject line if your correspondent hasn’t yet—it’s a huge time waster when you search on a thread and find multiple conversations all with the same subject.
12. Use EOM to indicate that the subject line is the ENTIRE message.
When a single directive or sentence can convey the entire message, there’s no need to write more. By adding the three letters, EOM (End of Message), you’ll know that the subject IS the message and not waste time opening an empty message.
BONUS: Also use RNR after EOM to indicate Reply Not Required.
13. Automate responses to frequently asked questions.
Create standard replies to frequent questions and fold them into “signature” files in your e-mail program. Then select the appropriate “signature” when replying.
With developments in artificial intelligence, there are now ways to automate responses to FAQs.
Take advantage of technology when you can to save yourself time and still deliver quality.
14. Publish your preferred methods for contact.
Let people know, in print, how and when you wish to be contacted. If you prefer text messages to e-mails, Skype to phone, etc., spell it out for folks in your signature and/or on your website so they can comply with your wishes.
I have updated my signature at various times to alert people to my protocol of only checking email twice a day. It has definitely prompted conversation and an opportunity to explain why I do what I do.
15. Reduce your use of e-mail as much as possible.
Seek out alternative ways of communicating. Does broadcasting a tweet or text message more succinctly get the information out? When no response is required, consider publishing things publicly somewhere with a permalink (wiki, blog, Twitter).
In our office, we’ve migrated to Slack for all internal communication. We don’t send each other emails—those are reserved for external communication.
This has done wonders to clean out my inbox and slow the flow of emails.
If you are going to implement this in your office, you may get some push back but once people start to really experience the benefit of fewer emails in their inbox, they will embrace this shift.
BONUS: When all else fails, declare e-mail bankruptcy.
Consider carefully whether drastic acts, like bankruptcy or dumping your address and starting over, offer more than a temporary solution to a larger problem. Neither option guarantees a more manageable relationship WITH email. That is still up to you.
So if you’re not ready to change your behavior, you may want to wait before doing something this disruptive.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There are plenty of ways to improve your relationship with email and save time and energy.
The best thing you can do is limit and focus your time using email AND consider what we’ve done by moving all internal communication away from email and onto a shared platform like Slack.
If you want to know more about how I can support YOU in slaying this email dragon, let’s get on a call.
Business owners and entrepreneurs—check out our coaching program, Rapid Results.
One of the pioneers of professional organizing and productivity, Andrew Mellen is the best-selling author of Unstuff Your Life!. He travels the world speaking, teaching, and coaching individuals and global brands including the New York Mets, Genentech, American Express, Time, Inc. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.