I'll explain ...
For many people, e-mail is the bane
of their professional life. Despite the fact that it's one of the oldest
Internet technologies (it's been around since the 1970s), many people still struggle with managing it effectively. It's not unusual to see e-mail in-boxes with hundreds – and sometimes even thousands – of messages, which causes you stress, frustration and hours of lost productivity each week. Some people simply give up and declare "e-mail bankruptcy", deleting everything and starting again, assuming that if something was important, the sender will follow up anyway. However, this is only a short-term solution, and before long the empty in-box fills up again.
The most important first step to managing your e-mail is to change your mindset. Rather than seeing it as a necessary evil that's inevitably going to harm your productivity each day, treat e-mail as a powerful communication tool that can improve your productivity.
Of course, that's easier said than done. However, I firmly believe that the problem is not with e-mail itself; it's with the kind of e-mail we receive, the way we perceive e-mail, and the way we manage e-mail:
- We receive some e-mail that's unnecessary, unwanted, inappropriate, unproductive and unimportant – and that gets in the way of the worthwhile e-mail.
- We often perceive e-mail as being more urgent than it is, and that means we don't get our important work done.
- We don't have techniques to manage it, so we feel stressed and overwhelmed by it.
If those problems sound familiar to you, start by adopting these three key principles, which will help you change your attitude towards these problems:
1. Don't let your in-box set your priorities.
Your in-box represents other people's priorities, not yours. So never use it to decide how you'll plan your day. Be clear about your priorities first, and don't vary from them unless absolutely necessary.
Time management experts will tell you to check your e-mail only a few times a day. But if you're like me and don't have the discipline to do that, that won't work. Instead, separate e-mail checking time from e-mail processing time: You can check for new mail as often as you like, but as soon as the e-mail arrives, you either delete it immediately or drag it into folders for processing later - on your own terms. You don't reply to any e-mail immediately unless it really is important, and you keep your in-box empty (Yes, empty: Zero messages!).
2. Use e-mail for important, not urgent, issues.
E-mail is a deferred communication tool, which means you shouldn't expect others to read your e-mail immediately, and they shouldn't expect it of you. Use it for important issues, but use other communication tools for urgent issues. In other words, if you want a fast response, don't use e-mail - and train other people to expect the same from you.
Remember what I said earlier: You process your e-mail on your own terms, and this includes replying to e-mail. Most e-mails don't need an immediate reply, so don't reply immediately. Reply when you're ready, and this will automatically slow down the flow of back-and-forth e-mails.
Again, I emphasise that you shouldn't inconvenience others. If something really is urgent, don't delay. But the vast majority of e-mail isn't urgent. So push it into another folder (so you can keep your in-box empty) and reply to it later.
3. Treat e-mail as just one of many communication channels.
There's no law that says you have to do everything by e-mail, and there's no law that says a conversation that starts by e-mail has to continue that way. Be flexible and willing to switch to other communication channels as needed.
As a broad guideline, if you're caught in an e-mail exchange that has gone back and forth more than 2 or 3 times, it's probably time to switch to some other format: pick up the phone, schedule an on-line meeting, or (gasp!) walk over and talk to the person.
Adopting these principles means changing your attitude towards e-mail, and I hope that this immediately helps you see e-mail in a more positive light.