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7 Productivity Tips for E-mail Communications

There were several days last week when I felt like I was drinking out of a communication fire hose. I spent the early part of the day before 7AM getting caught-up on e-mails and working on detailed tasks. Then I went into a four to five hour meeting and came out to find 70 – 80 e-mails and four text messages waiting for me.

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There were several days last week when I felt like I was drinking out of a communication fire hose. I spent the early part of the day before 7AM getting caught-up on e-mails and working on detailed tasks. Then I went into a four to five hour meeting and came out to find 70 – 80 e-mails and four text messages waiting for me.

It seems like this is becoming more common and has grown exponentially. The number of hours I need to deal with communication is now a significant part of my day. Sometimes I feel like the quality of my work is suffering because I rush from communication to communication.

Do you ever feel like this?

In a recent article Your Scarcest Resource, published in Harvard Business Review, the authors (Mankins, Brahm, and Caimi) wrote about how business executives today have to deal with 30 times more external communication than they did in the 1970s. They noted that the executives in their study have 30,000 annual communications today versus 1,000 in the 1970s. I remember those days. There were really only three ways someone communicated with me – by telephone directly (no answering machine), by letter, or face-to-face. When I left work, work communication for the day stopped until the next day.

While dealing with e-mail can make me feel unproductive, I try to do two things that help me feel productive – (1) Use e-mail management ideas from David Allen and (2) schedule thinking/training time when the e-mail gets turned off.

David Allen’s Tips

In David Allen’s terrific book, Getting Things Done, he shares with us many tips for managing e-mail and not letting it manage us. Allen reminds us to keep our “inboxes empty” and try to touch as many e-mails as possible only once. Here are five tips I find helpful:

  1. Delete useless e-mails immediately. Although they only take-up one line in your inbox, they take-up “psychic” space. If you have many e-mails to go through, sort the e-mails using the “From” column heading and then delete bunches of e-mail at once. Allen writes, “When in doubt, throw it out.”
  2. Complete e-mails that can be handled in 2 minutes or less. These e-mails are short ones that are either quick reads for you or require quick responses.
  3. File. If you “need” to hold onto these and other e-mails, file immediately in logical folders other than the inbox.
  4. File remaining e-mails in one of two types of folders. Allen writes that all remaining e-mails are those that require action – either after you receive more information from someone else OR by you soon. He suggests creating two folders where you will immediately store each type of e-mail. The first folder might be called “Waiting for” or something that works for you. The second type of folder could be “Read Respond.” I prefer to use two types of folders for this last category – “aaRead” and “aaRRR”, which for me means “Read, Research, Respond.” I use the “aa” at the beginning so that these folders appear at the top of my folder list.
  5. Schedule meaningful time regularly to handle e-mail in these last types of folders. Depending on your schedule, you need to set aside regular time to process e-mail stored in your Action Needed files.

Thinking Time/E-mail Off

The more I read about the time management topic, the more I see leaders scheduling 10-20 percent of their time for thinking, planning, and learning. When they do this they turn-off their e-mail and schedule a later time to process that communication. I try to do this (like right now when I am in a local McDonald’s finishing this blog and my e-mail is unplugged), but find if I don’t schedule it, other priorities quickly absorb my time.

Finally, I want you all to take this Steve Wood e-mail littering pledge, “I promise not to automatically hit ‘Reply to All’.” I have practiced this most of my 20 year e-mail career and with rare exception it works. I only hit “Reply to All” when (a) everyone is trying to make a collective decision or (b) when the information in my response is needed by everyone.

Now, I’m off to open my e-mail inbox and see what’s happened since I shut it off.

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