Do you manage your emails or do they manage you? As with any de-cluttering this is a process of freeing up your energy as well as time and we’re aiming to stop the clutter from gathering rather than just tidying up now and again. Here are some ideas....
Most of us go into autopilot when we sit at the computer so how much attention are you really giving to your emails? Are there certain times of the day when they are more of a challenge or distraction? Is all your email activity central to achieving your objectives? What are you tolerating? Where are the problem areas? If you put premium value on your time, energy and expertise, would you still be handling emails in the same way?
2. Give up the need to be a super-responsive email superstar Who said we had to respond to everyone immediately or with the perfect message? Is the timing of your response really equal to the value you place on the relationship? Sometimes an automated response can give the reassurance your emailer needs and educate them on your approach to emailing. Sometimes ‘playing hard to get’ can work in your favour! Be aware if you’re being driven by a need for approval and consider how you can meet that need in healthy ways, then you’ll be free to think about the respondent and ensure the communication is ‘fit for purpose’ rather than perfect. Be prepared to lower your standards!
3. Detox your inbox According to David Allen in Getting Things Done, keeping emails in an inbox instead of filing them into relevant folders causes continual re-reading of subject lines and contents which, like physical clutter, can cause a feeling of overwhelm. You need plenty of files for storing emails and, like any filing system, it needs to be clear if these files contain..... ~ emails for further action, ~ those awaiting further information (pending) ~ or those for reference. In Outlook your files are automatically listed alphabetically but you can number the files to ensure they are in an order that’s useful to you.
4. Stay regular, empty your inbox daily David Allen’s system is to clear out your inbox daily by doing the following:
Act immediately on emails that take less than 2 minutes to process
File emails that will take more than 2 minutes to process into an “Action” folder
Delete emails immediately if they do not contain reference information
Forward and reply to emails, copying yourself and filing the copy into a “Waiting For” folder if you need to follow-up on the actions of others. Delete the original email as it will be copied in the copy sent to your inbox.
Store emails with reference information in a sub folder
Using this system the emails that will require further attention are those in the action folder. As with any system you need to keep it as simple as possible and tailor it to your situation and working style.
5. Develop email rituals Is emailing a productive early morning task for you? If you’re most productive in the mornings, perhaps this is time you want to reserve for more creative tasks? Developing email rituals at set times of the day will help improve your productivity and save you getting drawn into dealing with messages as they arrive. Letting your emailers know when you’ll be reading their email (perhaps using an automated response) ensures they are kept up to date.
6. Make retrieval easy It’s all very well having a great filing system but it falls down if you can’t find what you’re looking for! With emails the subject line is really important. You can colour code the subject lines of action emails to show their priority and include as much relevant information as possible to help with processing for example...
Who is involved
What the email is about
When it takes place or the deadline for a response
Where the event will take place
With email folders, try to minimise overlap so there's one obvious file for the email rather than several options to choose from.
7. Educate others in how they can help you These methods work best when they’re agreed throughout a working group. You can start by being a role model and others will often be curious about the changes you're making. We all have our assumptions about good email practice and some maybe thinking very differently, so sharing tips and agreeing protocol can be really beneficial.
8. Decide who to trust. If your inbox is filled with cced information, this could mean you’re asking to be copied into email exchanges so that you can check up on projects you’ve delegated rather than providing you essential information. When you decide who to trust and ask for the specific information you need, you can use delegation more effectively. Are there more opportunities for delegating to ease your email interactions?
9. Get help..... make the most of your technology If you have a technical expert at hand, ask them to review how you can best use the technology available to enhance your email productivity. For example, if you use a blackberry or other phone with internet access and you process emails on it, make sure you set it up to delete emails from your desk top email client or you’ll double your processing time. I've already mentioned automated responses, you might also be able to automatically allocate emails from different people to specific files set up flagging to help identify emails for action. Linking to your diary or task list might also be helpful. Make sure you review from time to time so you're up to date with the latest developments.
10. Connect with people. Sometimes an email is a way of hiding and avoiding potentially difficult communication. If you feel this might be the case or you’re struggling to find the right words, biting the bullet and picking up the phone or arranging a meeting will be a more direct approach to resolving the situation. Emails can often me misinterpreted leading to further problems and drawn out email exchanges. Preparing for the communication with your coach or a trusted friend or colleague can make sure you tackle the situation to the benefit of all those involved.
And finally.... Make it fun! Yes, I’m talking to you even if you’re in a serious office wearing a dark suit! For some this might be using stationary and colours that appeal to you. Others might have signatures with pictures or quotes that inspire or make you smile. Perhaps you enjoy putting on some uplifting music whilst you’re dealing with emails? Or you could use a timer to challenge yourself. What I’m really asking is- how can your emails be more in tune with your self-expression and your values? How can they help communicate your essence to others as well as be an enjoyable part of your day?