As the CEO of a 45-person company who is also engaged with about 35 clients and business associates on a daily basis, I get somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 to 300 e-mails each day, not including spam. When I am in the office, the majority of my days are spent in back-to-back meetings, leaving minimal time at the end of the day to read, reply or clean up all of these messages. The challenge of responding to e-mail only increases while traveling — which right now is most of the time. Before I developed a cohesive process for managing my inbox, I used to spend a significant amount of time sifting through all these messages trying to figure out who needed a response yesterday. Before you know it, the day is shot.
As workers become overwhelmed with the influx of e-mail and their inboxes start filling up, they are more likely to lose track of what requires immediate attention and fall further behind in their work. The result is a tedious and reactive effort of putting out fires instead of maintaining efficient communication and proactive interaction. The only way to best leverage e-mail is to manage it properly. As a business grows, e-mail correspondence will only increase. A clean inbox enables users to reply or propel action more efficiently as opposed to being distracted by hundreds of sporadic e-mails.
Someone recently shared a great tip with me: To cut down on his time reading and responding to e-mail, this busy vice-president created a folder called “Where I Am Copied.” All e-mails where he is copied or blind copied are automatically sent directly to that folder (note: most e-mail programs can do this for you… or something like this). Classifying these e-mails as “those that do not require immediate attention or action” gives him the time he needs to focus on the messages that do. He sets aside time each week to read his “Where I Am Copied” folder.
Using a folders system is an ideal option for managing e-mail overflow. As you read your e-mail, file it into categories that pertain to your ability to follow up. For example, I have a folder entitled “for reference,” which includes e-mail that has attachments or information that I know I will need to refer to again. It’s wise to also include folders that have timelines embedded in them. You can use a folder such as “follow up within one week” or a “before the end of the month” folder. You’ll quickly find that your e-mail management skills will overlap with your ability to effectively manage your own workday.
Following are additional e-mail management tips that will keep your inboxes organized and fat-free and ensure that you are communicating clearly:
• Send an e-mail only to people who really need to read it.
• E-mail messages should always begin with name of the person to whom it is directed.
• Unlike a person-to-person conversation, e-mail has no “tone,” and a message could easily be misconstrued, which forces the reader to spend time trying to figure out exactly what the sender meant. In other words, keep subtle irony, sarcasm and humor out of business e-mail.
• If an e-mail requires immediate action from recipients, give them a due date for the action.
• Encourage users to use sensitivity labels (i.e., low priority arrow, urgent arrow and the follow-up flag, to name a few).
• Delete non-pertinent e-mail right away.
• Sort messages by date, listing most current on top.
• Engage with the e-mail in your inbox (read it, take the appropriate action, then delete it or file it in another folder).
• Use a spam filter.
E-mail overload must ultimately be addressed by having each user take responsibility for his individual information needs. The key is to get e-mail out of the inbox before it piles up. Create folders, prioritize and delete whatever does not need to be there. Ensuring that everyone on your team practices the same methods will result in an efficient and effective flow of communication.