If there is one common gripe among the leaders I work with, it is about managing their inbox. Here are just a few:
“Will someone please stop the Reply-All’s?!”
“My email drives my day. It seems to control my workflow and how I get things done. This means, I don’t get a lot done because I’m always on email.”
“No one taught me how to manage an inbox. Now that I’m in a job that has more of it, I simply don’t know what to do.”
“I get so many cc’s, I can barely decipher what I’m being informed of versus what I’m supposed to respond to.”
The good news is that while email can be a royal pain throughout our day, it doesn’t have to be. With some guidelines and practice, email can be a useful tool to be productive and make the impact you want to make.
It requires slowing down, being intentional, and setting boundaries. Here are 17 ideas to help you get there.
1. Delete what you don’t need. Get rid of the email you do not need in your inbox. It steals your focus.
2. Stop “checking and pecking”. This is when you open your inbox, scan it, click on a few here and there (like a chicken pecking at food) but don’t delete or reply to any of them. Touching your email multiple times a day without doing anything is a waste. If you’re bored in a meeting and opening email to pass time, then at minimum, delete what you don’t need.
3. Separate newsletters and updates. Set a rule for newsletters and organizational updates to go into a specific folder. You’ll be alerted when they arrive and can read when you want but they won’t rent space in your inbox.
4. Schedule time to look at email. Get control of email by controlling when you see it. Try to look at your email only 3 times per day but for 20-30mins each time.
5. Employ the 2-minute rule. If it will take you less than 2 minutes to reply, do it and then delete it. Take action when you can and don’t let completed email remain in your inbox.
6. Inform the sender when you need more time. Some email requires in-depth follow-up you don’t have time for in the moment. Reply and say, “I received your email and will look into it at the end of the week.” Keep that email in your inbox for later follow-up.
7. Be consistent when/if you file email. Either file your email into folders that make sense and are easily remembered or keep everything in your inbox and use search to find what you need. Just don’t do both. You’ll blow time trying to remember where everything is.
8. Schedule time blocks for in-depth replies. Reserve time on your calendar for in-depth email follow-up and plan to fully reply to those emails then.
9. Call or schedule a meeting. If an email results in back and forth explanations, more than 3-4 replies, pick up the phone or schedule a meeting. Miscommunication might be occurring and a discussion could be more productive.
10. Shut-off notifications. Most email is not urgent. You don’t need to be notified the second it arrives. Notifications distract your focus and thought process. Shut them off.
11. Close your inbox When you’re not working email, close your inbox. Inform your VIPs (boss, staff, or important colleagues) of this practice and ask them to text you if they need you immediately.
12. Don’t use email for chatting. Quick questions that result in 1–4-word replies are an unnecessary use of email and clutter inboxes. Pick up the phone or use instant messaging.
Ideas for Teams
Every team should have a shared understanding of how to use email to communicate with each other and their stakeholders. This looks like having ground rules and general principles for how to write and respond. Most teams have never done this. Here are 5 ideas to get that ball rolling.
13. Talk about it. Hold a discussion about email volume with the team. Ask what contributes to excessive volume and what helps mitigate it. Gather ideas, agree to employing a few, and evaluate how well it worked after a week or two. Make discussing how the team communicates with each other a routine.
14. Reduce (or eliminate) 1–3-word reply-all’s. Short reply-all’s like “thanks!” or “Will do!” or “Congrats!” to a large group are unnecessary and gunk up inboxes. Agree as a team to limit (or eliminate) these types of replies.
15. Use BLUF. Agree to using “Bottom Line Up Front” when writing email. This means to put the ask, request, or action to be taken at the beginning of the email instead of at the bottom. This tells the reader exactly what you want them to do at the beginning. Emails are more likely to be read and responded to this way.
16. Write specific subject lines. Email subjects should be less than five words and reflect the BLUF.
17. CC sparingly. Discuss as a team when it is appropriate to cc people and when it is unnecessary. Such as, determine which projects need relevant parties informed and use cc for them but don’t cc people’s bosses when they don’t reply to your email. It’s viewed as passive aggressive and petty.
Managing an inbox is a skill in and of itself. So, it’s worth putting intentional time into practicing those skills. Identify a few of these ideas that resonate the most with you and put them into play for a week or two. Reserve time to assess whether it was useful and adjust accordingly.
Email doesn’t have to be something that has control over you, your focus, or your productivity. With some intention and routine, you can get control over your email.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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