Surviving Email

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!”

Change :: the new status quo

“We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Sure, Dorothy’s line is now cliché, but it captures the disconcerting wake-up call that we all have at unpredictable moments all the time. Change is the new status quo and when least expected it catches us off guard knocking us off-balance.

Here’s what I mean. Two weeks ago my Uncle asked me to help him get his television working. It’s a simple problem really—unless you are completely behind the curve of technological change. His television is one of those old portable 13-inch screens in a box the size of an ice chest that weighs about 25 pounds. The assisted living facility where he lives told him that the problem is he would need to order cable. He has never had cable and doesn’t understand why he can’t a good signal with a pair of old-school rabbit-ears.

So, picture the scene. Here I was, trying to explain the problem of a 30-year-old analog TV in a flat-screen high-def digital age to a technologically illiterate senior citizen who is almost deaf. He just doesn’t have the categories.

Think about his dilemma on a deeper level. The changing world we call home has put him in a place where the ‘rules’ he knows for how life works no longer apply. He cannot apply “rabbit-ear solutions” he understands to a “digital world” he doesn’t. His desire to wind the clock back to a day where solutions and approaches he understands still work is perfectly understandable. It is an unavoidable experience in a world where constant hi-speed discontinuous change is the order of the day.

These are the waters we all swim in. It is the reason why I chose the image of a sailboat cutting through the waves by harnessing the wind as the metaphor for this website. Learning to embrace and navigate change is life for all of us and it is the meat and potatoes of leadership.

I am fascinated by change, by how it happens, by the way it impacts people, and especially by what it takes to lead it effectively. I have been making observations and logging insights into leading change for a number of years now and it’s time to put more of them in writing.  So, consider this an introduction. For a number of weeks, I will devote my entries to different thoughts about change, including:

–       The end of the 40/40 world

–       A 5-dimensional approach to leading change

–       Leading is change

–       A battleship vs. a zodiak

–       The need for heretics

For today, the question is a simple one: what is one area of change you are tired of and what could you do to embrace it rather than fight it?

Runner’s up for Book of the Year 2008

Getting beyond the wow factor of technological advancements can be hard at times. After all, today my phone has more memory, speed, and graphic computing power than my first computer ever dreamed of. But the real issue for all of us is how we are going to leverage the opportunities created by technology in order to exercise leadership influence? How do we participate in the social-networking and web-based explosion of the likes of Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter, or blogging phenomenon.

Tribes is about that kind of leverage. In fact, in the surprise I didn’t expect, Godin’s book offers powerful principles for effective leadership in an information age. I an such a fan o the book that I have been highly recommending it to our staff. Every leader of the day faces the challenge of getting beyond the surface and superficial use of technology and informational systems and getting to the real issue: leadership. Here is a book to help you do just that.

Tribes invites all of us into a fresh look at the opportunities and necessities of leadership in the environmentof our day.

The second book in my Runner’s Up category is Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Pete Scazzero.  I have written on this in an earlier entry that you can read.  But, as I look back on the year, I realize that I am continually having conversations that link back to EHS and to the journey that book sent me on.

One component of the book I have thought a great deal about lately is the way Scazzero addresses the need we all have to grieve our limits and our losses.  We all have God-given limits and our ability to discover genuine emotionally healthy spirituality is connected to how well we learn to deal with loss and with our limits.

I don’t know about you, but I have found that my emotional well-being and my spiritual well-being are inseparably intertwined. Here is a tool to guide the integration of my (and I hope, your) journey.