Article by Richard Wolfe
Email has been around for over 20 years now. In the beginning it was great, just imagine going back to fax and copy machines. But its success soon grew into it being one of the top 3 stress creators in the office.
Some of the habits we developed over the years are actually counterproductive. Let’s have a look at our top 4 and what we can do to change them.
1. Treat email as urgent
Urgent emails do not exist or at least, not in my inbox. Our service desk receives urgent emails, but it has a team managing incoming calls and emails and when someone falls ill another team member takes over.
If we all treated email as urgent, we would all have to hang around in our inbox waiting for urgent emails to arrive and jump on them immediately.
So, how can we solve this?
One, accept and agree that urgent emails do not exist. Then, turn of all your email notifications on all your devices to avoid distractions. Finally, do not work from your inbox but create a separate folder for your important emails that deserve attention on the short term and work from there with focus. If the email is urgent, let them call, text, scream or cry.
I often compare email in the office to traffic in Delhi. It is as if we were all given a machine to drive but no training or clear plan on how to do this efficiently and safely.
If we want to be more efficient when dealing with our email, we need a plan. In this case, it is a carefully selected set of habits that will get us through the day easily and provide an overview and calmness. A simple plan should answer questions like:
- When do I check my email? Aim for only a couple of times per day
- How do I deal with tasks in emails? If they can be done in a minute do them immediately. If not, sort them based on their nature (task for now, task for later, task for someone else…)
- Where do I file my emails? In just one folder and rely on searching. Make sure you know how to archive older emails so you never have to spend time going through them again figuring out what can and can’t be deleted.
- How do I check my email? You don’t, when you are in your inbox you are there to process them one-by-one. When your inbox is empty you leave your inbox and ignore it to your best ability. You only go back to repeat the process.
2. Overdoing the plan
The other side of the coin is the habit of managing email with a solid plan that we developed in the early days of email. Let’s file every email in a neat folder so we can find it again. Let’s flag every email and set a reminder date. Let’s colour every email so we know what category it belongs to. Let’s do all three!
This habit is not a problem if you receive 10 or 20 emails a day. This is no longer the case though. Most knowledge workers will average 50-80 emails a day and then having this habit becomes too much of a chore itself. We do need overview, but it needs to suit the volume of email we receive on a daily basis.
So simplify your filing by relying on searching (like you would trust Google for finding information on the Internet) Reduce the amount of handling per email by using less features rather than more and be critical of old habits.
3. Trusting our brain
We know we shouldn’t, we have been relying on ToDo notebooks, shopping lists, calendars and all types of gadgets or apps to help us remember our tasks. The brain is the most unreliable device when it comes to remembering the right stuff at the right time. And as we grow older it is not going to get any better.
One problem with all these different lists is how to prioritize. Too often, I see people with their important tasks in a spreadsheet working away all day on the less important ones in their inbox. So if your inbox is going to win, let it be the universal starting point on anything that is task related or anything else going on in your brain that you would like to remember. The solution is easy, just send yourself an email with the reminder.
Most of us do this anyway (or ask others to send us the reminder). The trick is to be consistent. How often do we realise that we failed do to do something just because we trusted our brain to remember to do it “in a minute” or “when I get back to the office.
Make it a habit that you can do anywhere, anytime. Apps like Braintoss make it very easy to do so. And let you brain enjoy being free of remembering task lists.
4. Doubting our autonomy
Have you ever wondered why in organisations where there are a lot of organisational changes and uncertainty the use of CC and reply-to-all is higher than average? We all know the ‘cover-your-yourself ‘ CC and have used reply-to-all simply because everybody else did.
How can we improve this?
- Inform on a need to know basis. The boss really doesn’t need to (or at least shouldn’t need to) know everything. We have several other means to update colleagues like team meetings. We do not need to know every step of the way to a good or bad result.
- Avoid use of CC and reply-to-all. A better alternative is to email the person what you need to send him or her, and then go to your sent Items to forward the item to the person who needs a copy, including a line why they are receiving a copy. This will avoid unnecessary snowballing of email conversations.
Speedmailing by Richard Wolfe is out now, published by Pearson, priced £9.99. For more information about Richard Wolfe and his book see: www.richardwolfe.nl