A Proven System To Tame Your Emails
Updated: Jan 17, 2021
Like Newman famously remarked in Seinfeld, “the mail never stops!”
I receive 100+ emails on a daily basis. Staying up to date with your email can be a time sink and not managing your email can be a source of stress and anxiety. Success in my career is when I can spend the most time on focused work and high ROI activities (e.g. coaching my team, conducting product and strategy reviews). Being efficient with how I manage my emails allows me to maximize the time spent on focused work.
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Here are a few things you can do to manage your emails and maximize productivity.
1. Set expectations.
What is your email turnaround time? Most people expect responses within one business day - this should work for you with exceptions. E.g. key folks like your manager will expect responses faster.
If something requires your urgent attention, what is the best way to get in touch with you? Message you on Google Chat or Slack, call you or something else?
2. Organize. Use filters or rules to organize your email into the relevant categories. For example, you likely want to treat emails from your manager and senior execs as high priority. Similarly, emails sent to a discussion group are great candidates to read towards the end of the week. The idea is to train your email client to organize your emails based on what is important to you. Invest in keeping these filters/rules updated - it is worth it.
3. Schedule time in your calendar for email. Reserve your most productive time periods (e.g. early morning) for focused work vs doing email. Focused work can be used to review project proposals or strategic work that came from email, it cannot however be used for tactical email responses. I prefer to schedule time when I am least productive, e.g. late afternoon, for email responses. Treat this time as a meeting with yourself and ask for any meetings scheduled during your email time to be rescheduled.
4. Tackling your email. With your emails neatly organized, at the scheduled time, start working through your email.
Optional - using Tony Hsieh’s Yesterbox method to pick which emails to respond to. A simplified version of this is - when it is time to respond to email, only respond to all the email you got yesterday. There are a few benefits to this (1) it is a finite number of emails that you can get to 0, if that is a goal (2) it falls within your 24 hour response window (3) It gives others on the email thread time to respond/resolve the question, but you can jump in now if something is still awaiting your input.
For every email, here is a flow chart to follow. Ideally you make a decision about a piece of email right when you read it for the first time, what some call OHIO (Only Handle It Once)
When you delegate to someone, you are still accountable for the outcomes. And you don't want to micromanage the person either. A good way to strike a balance is to offer to check in to assess progress and offer to help as needed. For example, "Jim, let's touch base at the end of this week to see how things are going and if I can help with anything."
When responding, avoid lengthy email chains. Be clear and specific in your response that restricts the back and forth and “ends the thread” or propose a meeting instead.
5. Analyze your emails for patterns.
Are you repeatedly being asked to clarify something? For example, is sales asking you how your product competes in the market? This might point to gaps in the sales enablement material and you might need to create a competitive battle card to arm sales vs providing custom responses each time.
Consider creating email templates for common situations. Formulate Once, Use Forever. For example, as a product manager, I get a lot of requests for accelerating my product road map or committing to a previously unsupported feature. Creating reusable templates helps cut down the time I spend to respond.
Unsubscribe from mailing lists that are no longer relevant to you. The best way to tame your inbox is to never get unwanted email.
Give feedback. If you spend time reading email that is important to you (e.g. status report of a big project you are working on) but the email is poorly written, making it harder to synthesize the takeaways, consider giving feedback to the sender. Since this is a repeat activity (e.g. weekly status emails), taking the time to provide feedback is worth it - it includes not just the time spent but you also help a colleague get better in their job.
Did your email filters and rules do their job? Your system relies on the filters doing their job, so tweak them on a regular basis so your Inbox is always well organized.
6. Reducing Email Anxiety
Don’t worry about the number of unread emails, that is a red herring. If you try to manage to unread emails, you will end up responding to quick but potentially lower priority emails just to get the number down. The goal is to manage your email so you can focus on the most impactful work for your career.
Disable Email notifications. Consider closing your email tab or client altogether when not working on it.
Use schedule send in Gmail. If I end up working on Friday night or over the weekend, I don’t want to make my co-workers work as well. So I typically schedule for Monday morning. Also, I don’t want a lengthy email thread over the weekend either.
7. Be pragmatic - these systems will help you get more efficient with your time. However, you are still dependent on what is happening in your broader organization. Things will still happen that toss your best plans for a loop. Like Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless but planning is indispensable”. Having a clear email management system like the one above gives you a leg up to maximize your time and focus on what is the most important to you.
As you step into 2021 and return from the holidays, don’t be afraid to declare email bankruptcy and start over using the system above. Good luck!
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