Do you manage email or does it manage you? How much time do you spend sending emails and managing your inbox?
A straw poll of my friends suggests that anything between two and four hours a day is common. So, after email and meetings, when are you actually finding the time to do any work?
We know we should be engaging our team, networking with clients and other departments – all those useful things we did before email came along.
Instead we are overwhelmed. I’ve been looking into this a lot lately, and here are my top 5 tried-and-tested tips to help you manage email, and stop it completely managing you:
Tip #1: Set limits
The trouble with email is that it can be terribly distracting and disempowering if we simply react to it. If we allow each email to take priority as and when it arrives in our inbox, we are not managing our time at all.
Set specific times for responding to emails – it could be two, three, even four times a day if necessary, but set limits – say 10-11am and 3-4pm, and stick to them. Turn off email in between the times you’ve set.
If you think this is harsh, some companies have started putting their PCs on standby every hour or so to force employees to actively manage their email and get away from their screens.
Contrary to popular belief, the world does not stop when you turn email off for an hour or two. Or three. In fact, after a while, something rather wonderful starts to happen. When people need to speak to you urgently ‘out of hours’ they will call you or come to your desk and speak to you. And knotty problems that used to take days to resolve by email are sorted out in minutes.
Tip #2: Chunk it
Take a similar approach for sending emails. Set a time period of no more than an hour, and set a target for how many emails you are going to write in that period. Set an alert on your calendar (or if you’re at home, use an oven timer in another room) and switch to another task, such as making phone calls, when your time is up.
‘Chunking’ tasks like this is a great time management technique that forces you to be disciplined. It is much more productive than flitting from task to task as you can build up quite a head of steam while you’re focused on one thing, but after 20 minutes or so you start to lose efficiency. Switching tasks keeps you fresh and alert.
Tip #3: Unsubscribe
How many newsletters and alerts are you subscribed to? It’s easy to get carried away, and soon you start to believe you can’t function without news and information popping into your inbox every five seconds. But all it really does is add to your sense of overwhelm.
Try this. Set yourself a target to unsubscribe from, say, five newsletters each week. If you miss any of them (and I can almost guarantee you won’t) you can always sign up for them again. Or set up a new email account just for newsletters and alerts and visit it when you have some spare time on your hands.
I tried this on my personal email account and I soon became quite zealous about it. It was astonishing just how much crap I was inviting in to my day – if it had landed on the doormat I wouldn’t be able to get out of my house. Now my personal inbox is almost purely from people I know, and its so much easier to keep track of who I need to reply to. It’s heaven.
Tip #4: Use a two-week folder
You probably already have a ‘to do’ and a ‘to read’ folder at the very least, but here’s one that’s a bit more radical.
Set up a folder and put in every inbox email over 2 weeks old. Yes, even the ones you haven’t read yet.You aren’t deleting anything, so the paper trail is still there if you need it. When you have that wonderful five minutes spare you can always go into it and check you haven’t missed anything important…but you won’t have to. Because if you have, the author will have reminded you already. Anything else didn’t matter anyway, so you saved all that time reading and acting on it.
Seriously, this is one of the most liberating techniques I’ve found. I have known people learn new languages and start new businesses in the time they saved by following this tip.
Tip #5:Learn to love the phone
Finally, save yourself a lot of time and build better relationships by using the phone.
Email is a fantastic tool for broadcasting information, but it’s simply not the best medium for every type of communication. In fact it is notoriously bad for situations that are in any way emotional, or that require dialogue.
It might feel easier hiding behind email, but it’s a false economy.For high-stakes convesations, phone and/or face to face are quicker, less prone to misunderstandings and make for healthier, more productive work relationships.
I hope these techniques will help you to manage email more effectively, and liberate you from the tyranny of the overstuffed inbox. All that remains is to decide what you’re going to do with all that spare time…