Email is one of the great contradictions of the modern workplace. Not only is email one of the largest drivers of productivity but it is also one of its most frequent obstacles. This is because while email is one of the most vital tools for any business owner or employee due to its ability to facilitate immediate communication, this immediacy is often also highly distracting and obstructing for deliverables. The process of managing your emails is a repetitive task that almost all workers must undertake to carry out their duties effectively. With that being said it is a thin line between obsessively controlling your email and being controlled by your email. To help people with this admittedly difficult task we have included in this article some tips for managing your email more effectively.
Control Your Email – Don’t Be Controlled
Some people will obsessively check their email to action, archive, prioritise and reply to any new email they receive. While others will wait until their inbox piles up with a sufficient number of unanswered emails that it motivates them to action them all by close of business or end of the week. While not everyone falls into one of these two management styles both are equally damaging to productivity and workplace efficiency. Constantly checking email can disrupt your train of thought or ‘work-flow’ thus impacting deliverables, while not checking or actioning your email can delay deliverables and cause communication issues.
Below are four excellent ways to ensure that you are controlling your email and not the other way around:
1) Restrict when and how many times you check your email during the course of a day. For example checking and actioning your email three times a day (Morning, Lunch and Afternoon) can help boost productivity by preventing distraction.
2) Establish email filters that automatically sort and categorise your received mail by the level of priority to prevent wasting time individually organising and sorting your new emails.
3) Restrict your email software from notifying you with audio tracks or visual prompts to further reduce the chance of being distracted from your working rhythm.
4) Create an automatic reply which informs people when you will be actively checking and actioning your emails.
Creating A Prioritising System
While most people will attempt to prioritise and action emails relatively quickly many people can’t or don’t. With that in mind, it is important to consider how much time you spend actioning emails each day as it can detract from delivering and as the old business adage goes “time is money!”. This is why it is vital to master the ability to prioritise. There are dozens of ways to make email prioritisation more effective but we will discuss a few of them by using a brief hypothetical example.
Contact: “Dave – Telstra – IT Support” Dave sends me more than a dozen emails a week and sometimes quite a few per day. His emails vary from those that can be actioned within a minute (simple requests) or more complicated projects and issues that may require a week or more of work. Dave manages a large team of staff who also liaise with me and as such I am often cc’d into many emails simply so I am informed.
Example Priority System
With Dave and the example in mind I have created a priority system whereby various levels of emails and requests are filed, categorised and scheduled. For example “Urgent” requests or those needing to be completed within a day or two are always filed within my “Urgent” folder or label, less significant emails to be actioned within a week or two are filed into the “Pending” folder or label. If an action or email is “On Hold” then I refile it into my “On Hold” folder or label. These folder or label structures are systematic and are applied to all my clients and contacts…always with no exceptions.
Consistently applying priority divisions using folders or labels can be a great first step towards controlling your email priorities. Another useful organisational folder or label to use is “To Read”. Any emails where you are a cc or bcc receiver could be filed into the “To Read” folder. The best method to do this is not to waste time reading the whole email as your receive it but instead skim over it to determine if it is an urgent or actionable email and then file them to fully read later. In order for this simple folder or label system to work it is important to have a means to keep track of tasks and actionable deadlines within your email.
A great way to keep track of your emails is by utilising the built-in calendars most email services provide. Both Google and Outlook, in particular, have excellent calendars with a high level of functionality for setting reminders, colour coding, flagging etc. Being able to set reminders at later dates for specific emails can be great for time management and preventing yourself from being bogged down in your new emails. For example entering “To Read – Dave – Data Error 2/2/016” into a calendar tells you firstly who it is from (Folder – Dave), what it is roughly about and the date it was received. The date on your calendar is the date you need to action that email. While setting the reminders will take a small amount of time it is worth it for the organisational gains.
A more advanced method of email prioritisation could also be by creating email filters that automatically move and label emails as soon as you receive them. Almost every email service provider offers this functionality. An example of this might be that Dave sends me a daily email with the subject line “Report – Successful Data Connections”. This report requires no actions normally but is more for reference on an ad hoc basis as needed. To control this email I establish a filter within my Gmail to archive those reports automatically to the “Data Connections Report” folder or label. This means I have one less email in my inbox but it stores them effectively for use later if needed. There are many tutorials available online for creating filters but I have included links to two of the most popular services Gmail and Outlook.
It is important to remember that you have to find a system that makes sense to you and works for your purposes. Any priority system will be unique to each user but the most important things to remember are consistency, organising folders or labels and where you can automated reply’s and filters.
Fostering Positive Email Behaviours
One often underrated element of training and documentation in businesses is Email protocols. Establishing email protocols and standards of communication across your business can be very effective at limiting your internal email bloat. This could be as simple as formalising communication paths such as;
Emails to upper management from staff must run through their manager who then forward or action them to upper management
(Staff – Manager – Upper Management). Having this formalised within a memo or as part of a wider reaching training session would be helpful.
Another simple protocol that could be put in place is establishing a live chat application within your business such as WhatsApp or Skype. Often an email request that requires a very short response (less than 2 minutes) could be completed by a short, one line instant message that takes half the time to notice and reply to. Providing a means for employees to communicate without calling or physically communicating (interrupting another person) can be extremely beneficial to reducing email management demands.
In summary, email management is a vital component of any business or workplace. Business and workers that learn to more efficiently manage their email will see an improvement in their overall work productivity.