Updated: Oct 13
In the current crisis probably the only thing about work that hasn’t been reduced is the amount of email we all get. If anything, it’s actually increased and, let’s face it, even in normal times it can be a problem! If like me you’re trying to use this unscheduled down time to catch up with those administrative tasks that you’ve put off for way too long, you could probably do without the distraction. With that in mind I’ve put together 10 tips that will make email a whole lot easier to deal with.
1. Turn off notifications
With all the technology at our fingertips, it’s not surprising that our computers and phones are flashing or beeping every few minutes to let us know about some form of message or other. Human nature dictates that we feel compelled to check them in case we miss something, but the reality is they are distractions. The emails aren’t going to delete themselves if you don’t read them immediately - even though anyone who’s returned from a 2-week vacation might wish they would! Receiving notifications stops you from focussing on the task in hand, so, to be more productive turn them off.
2. Schedule time for email
Now you’re not checking your inbox every ten minutes, start defining specific times during the day for dealing with email. Some people advocate doing it once a day but, depending on the amount of email you receive, two or three slots per day is more realistic. Two popular times are before lunch and before leaving the office, but if you regularly receive overnight emails from different time zones, it’s probably worth checking first thing too.
3. Keep it short and simple
Wherever possible keep emails short and to the point; a couple of paragraphs is usually plenty. Ideally try to only cover one topic in each email and make sure any actions and responsibilities are clearly defined. There’s nothing worse than a rambling email that flits between different topics without any recognizable objectives. There might be times when you need to write a lengthy report to update a group of colleagues about an ongoing activity. In these instances, it is worth considering writing your report in another package and sending it as an attachment. Any actions arising from your report can be listed in the body of the email (making sure you identify who is responsible and when a response is required).
4. Avoid chains (threads)
As useful as email is there are many times when it isn’t the best tool for the job. We’ve all been involved in email chains which seem to gain a life of their own as they bounce back and forth until it reaches a point where nobody can remember the original topic. As a general rule of thumb, if you ask a question by email and the answer raises another question then you shouldn’t be using email. Pick up the phone or schedule a meeting (remember those?) – you’ll get the answers you need much quicker & you can always send a summary email if a permanent record is needed.
5. Think about who you copy
Who to copy on an email is one of the biggest dilemmas we all face. The temptation is to copy everyone that might be remotely interested but all that does is increase everybody’s email overload. Tools like MAIL MASTER make it easy to share email information without actually copying people on emails, but if you’re not using such a tool think carefully before you add someone to a “cc” list. It’s always good practice to put the names of people with an action in the “To” list and those for whom the email is “for information” in the “cc” list. This allows recipients to use rules to differentiate “for info” emails from those which require an action.
One way or another it’s a safe bet your email address will have found it’s way on to numerous mailing lists. Whether it’s blogs, newsletters or updates from companies you’ve bought from or done business with, a significant portion of your inbox will be marketing email. A quick way to reduce the number of emails in your inbox is to unsubscribe from everything you’re no longer interested in. Thanks to GDPR this is pretty easy as all marketing emails are required to have an unsubscribe button. There are also a number of services/apps which will enable you to unsubscribe from everything en masse, but having never used one, I can’t vouch for how good they are.
7. Use Rules/Filters
Pretty much every email program has tools that help you automatically sort email as it arrives. Whether your email program calls them rules or filters, 2 basic things are needed for them to work:
a. A keyword or email address to look out for.
b. An action to take when the keyword or email address is found.
Set up rules to automatically handle emails from specific people, on a particular topic or even where you are only on the “cc” list by either filing, archiving or forwarding them on. This will minimize the amount of administrative actions you need to take and at the same time as removing a significant number of emails from your inbox.
8. Don’t feel you need to reply to every mail
Not all emails are created equal! If an email has been in your inbox for over a week without you responding, there’s a very high probability that 1 of 4 things will happen or will have happened:
a. The sender will have re-sent the query.
b. The sender will have picked up the phone to chase a response.
c. The sender will have asked someone else.
d. The sender was never expecting a response.
Next time you come back from a 2-week holiday to an inbox full of hundreds of unread emails try deleting (or marking as read) everything from the first week of your holiday. I guarantee you’ll hear from very few people chasing responses to emails from that period. The bottom line is reply if it adds value - if it doesn’t then it’s probably not worth worrying about it. Just let it be and things will sort themselves out through time.
9. Use Technology
All the above tips are things anyone can do regardless of whatever hardware or software they’re using. They’re all easy to implement; don’t require major changes to the way you work and will solve a lot of your email management problems. If you want or need to take things to the next level, there are a variety of software solutions designed to help you cut down on the time spent dealing with email. Collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack offer a wide array of functionality including file sharing and instant messaging that can reduce the number of emails you send and receive. The downside of these programs is they are quite complex. They not only take time to set up and learn but can also result in lots of other messages and notifications, in which case all they really achieve is turning your email problem into a Teams/Slack problem. Another solution is MAIL MASTER – it’s much simpler than other solutions and doesn’t require you to learn or install any new software. It works alongside whatever email software you’re using and makes it easy to share information and emails without filling up people’s inboxes.
10. The Final Solution
If you’ve tried all of the above and still find that email is getting on top of you there’s one more thing you could try. It’s a bit drastic but it will definitely solve all your email woes. I call it the “Tom Hanks Solution” because it involves taking yourself off to a desert island with no technology and only a volleyball called Wilson for company! It works, but haven’t we all had enough of isolation?
Hopefully these tips will be useful. Use the ones that work for you and feel free to adapt them to make dealing with email less of a chore.