Email, Email, Email – How to Survive the Information Flood

If you are like me, there is no way you can possibly keep up with the never ending flood of emails hitting your inbox.  Career professionals today have multiple personal and business email accounts and many of the people we work with from our customers to our children’s teachers depend on email to communicate important messages.

Unfortunately, not everyone observes the same email protocols and worse there are those that abuse email or even use it for malicious intent.  In this article, I share my research and practices my firm teaches to manage the flood of emails from those that are trying to send us messages they think are important.  With this article, I will share some best practices for effective and efficient email management and ask that readers please share their knowledge on this subject, as it is still a poorly defined body of knowledge.

I have researched email management several times in recent years in support of clients and spent time researching email management on the Internet and found many articles to find the latest trends.  The first thing I can tell you is that I could find no authoritative source for email management.  There are some good articles and blogs, but nothing one would consider a real standard for email centric personal planning and management.  If someone knows of such a standard setting organization, please post a comment letting us know.

My second major finding is that most of the articles and blogs say essentially the same things.  They say things like “setup email screening rules,” “keep replies simple and brief,” etc.  Rather than repeating the guidelines, here are three of the best articles I found on the subject.

From my research and experimentation, I have found six email management techniques that stand out.  These are the must have email management techniques.

  1. Ignore email.  Important messages will get to you.  Yes, this sounds risky, but I do it and it works.  Of course, your eyes are going to quickly identify emails from important people like your CEO, your customers, and your spouse.  Everyone knows how busy you are and if they do not hear from you on an important message, they will call, or instant message, or text message you.  Of course, you need to make sure you are technologically accessible to the people that matter in your life.
  2. Set an email schedule – Read emails on a schedule throughout the day, or limit yourself to a certain number of email minutes per time period.  To get thoughtful work completed, you must take time to focus without distractions and email is distraction number one for most people.  Some It firms are not allowing email for their developers and it significantly improves cycle times, quality, and even collaboration, because they are forced to actually talk about development ideas and issues.
  3. Keep it brief – Keep all messages to one subject per email and the same for all replies.  This is very important.  Emails are hard enough to interpret.  When people combine multiple subjects, the meaning of the message is lost.
  4. Enforce proper behavior – this is one not mentioned in the email articles I read, but I use it successfully.  Essentially, it goes like this.  If someone sends you an email with more than one topic, respond to them stating that you will review and respond to their email as soon as you can, but in the future they should only send emails with one topic per email.  That way you can quickly comprehend and succinctly respond to their email.  If the person persists in sending you voluminous emails, call the person and explain that you simply cannot take the time to read and comprehend his or her emails and that if they need to discuss complex topics to please pick up the phone and call.  Remember, the inverse of behavior shaping is also true.  If you behave badly with email, then your correspondents will do the same in return.  If you send large emails, they will probably give it right back.  If you respond quickly to every email, then people will continue to flood your inbox.  Email is not instant messaging and should not be used as such.
  5. Use lists and bullets – This is a great technique for communicating the steps you want a person to follow in a task, or the items you want them to deliver on a project.  Rather than weaving items into the text of email paragraphs, simply provide a list.  Many people consider lists to come across as harsh and impersonal and perception can be reality, but they are also more concise and accurate.  It is common practice these days to ask them to pardon your brevity at the end of an email, so if you are worried about hurting feelings by listing tasks, simply post that little disclaimer and they should get over any unhappy feelings.
  6. Use follow-up flags and categories – This is a great way to ensure the important emails that require your action get segregated from the masses of the marginally valuable.  Most email clients have some type of follow up flag or star you can click to tag the email.  When you are scanning your inbox, you should go through a process of deleting, flagging, and categorizing.  Personally, I prefer deleting emails, but that is not always an option.  Flag emails that need action and sort your inbox based on flag, then received date.  You can also categorize with most email clients and use hot key to quickly

There is also one recommendation from my research that I have not tried, but it is certainly interesting.  It is to charge a fee for emails.  The example given was an executive that takes a few dollars from the department of each person that sends him an email.  Supposedly, his inbox only contained important company emails because of this practice and collaboration with his leadership team was improved.  This sounds risky, but it may have a positive effect if people talk rather than email.  If someone tries it, please let us know how it goes.

Email is and will continue to be a major part of personal and professional life for years to come.  Like all technologies, it will eventually be replaced by something more efficient and effective.  Until then, we can hope that the ways in which email is used and managed will continuously improve.

Again, please post your comments and suggestions on how readers can improve email management.

This will be my last post of 2011 – Happy Holidays!!!

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