Niagara Falls is stunning. The beauty, the noise, the sheer volume of water, it’s mesmerizing. At the same time, get underneath it and you’ll drown. Email is a lot the same.
One of my colleagues, specializes in coaching the development and effectiveness of leaders around the world and trains other coaches to do the same. A few weeks ago Keith and I were talking about the challenges of managing email and he told me, “the most common single subject leaders ask me to coach them through is how to manage the relentless flood of email.”
A pastor once said to me, “some days I feel like I spend my life clicking keys on a keyboard.”
Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with email. I use it all the time. It gives me a simple way to share information, ideas, and documents. It is an elegant solution to working with and relating to people from a distance. But, every time I open my mail software it feels like I am putting my lips up to a fire hose. And that brings me to todays post.
We know that in a changing world leaders have to be learners. We have to master new skills. But, ten to fifteen years ago, who would guessed that an efficient method for managing email was a non-negotiable skill for every leader? Leading people effectively in this decade not only calls for the classic qualities of character, inspiration, and courage, today a leader must get their inbox under control. The line between serving people face to face and online no longer exists. Avoid executing a personalized strategy and discipline for managing your email to your peril.
Do you have a personal strategy? Is it working? It doesn’t matter what works for someone else, what matters is what works for you that you can do consistently?
In a moment I’ll share what I have discovered, but if you are underwater, there is help. Check out Merlin Mann and his 43 Folders website. Watch his video presentation to Google employees or look at his posts on getting your Inbox to zero. David Allen, the GTD guru (Getting Things Done) sends out a free newsletter Productive Living that is regularly worth the read.
Now it’s my turn. As someone who went for a long time being hounded by an inbox that would frighten the boogie man, this has been a profound transformation. And, knowing that most people need to see a model before they can figure out their own, here is what I have found that works for me. Maybe part of my solution will help you find your own. You could call it, “Gary’s Personal Strategy for Surviving Email,” or…
Email: How to Enjoy the Falls without Drowning
Process Email–don’t check it.
That is, don’t scan email and leave then in the inbox as some sort of amorphous to do list. Look at an email, make a decision and act on it. For me there are four possibilities for action:
1. Respond right now.
This is the right action if it is something I can do in a sentence or two or it is appropriately urgent.
2. Sort it.
This is my most important discovery! Just because an email lands in my box now, doesn’t mean i have the time or the information at hand to respond to it. So any email I need to act on, but can’t right now, I sort into one of three folders:
1. ACTION — NOW: Needs attention and/or reply within the next 24-48 hours.
2. ACTION — Soon: Needs attention within the week.
3. FYI: it contains information I would like to read sometime.
3. Trash it.
Read it, scan it, or ignore it. Then delete it.
4. Store it.
I have one basic file for email I want to keep. I named it “Archives.” The ability of email software to easily search and find things makes the need for complex email filing systems obsolete. (Two exceptions: if it is something I am waiting on the other person to act on, I have a folder called “waiting for response.” The other is exception is that some complex projects require a communication thread handy. I will have a short term fold in for that need.)
Block Time to Work Email
Instead of dreading the constant nagging voice of unanswered email, I block time proactively during my day and my week to read and reply to email. And, the email I work on first is the email in the ACTION–NOW folder. An hour a day is often not enough, but it is a starting point.
Clear Out the Inbox 2-3 Times a Day.
A long time ago, I decided I wouldn’t sit at the computer with my Inbox open and dinging at me every time I get a new piece of mail. I open it deliberately a few times a day and when I do, I process what is there. Generally, first thing in the morning, sometime late morning and then late afternoon.
Your thoughts or Secrets?
I would love to hear what you have learned about managing your own flood of email or what you think about my approach.
Next Post: One more thought on email, “When Sending Email is Stupid!”