E-Mail Made Simple

I was doing some subcontractor management for a defence communications system in England a few years ago. I got to work in an interesting part of the country, and I got to work with lots of smart people. One of the smartest was the project technical lead.

He could seemingly keep a running tally in his head of many details, moving parts, schedule, staff, and cost details – all re-callable at a moment’s notice and as needed. He also had an e-mail in-box that he was quite proud of. It had over 500 unanswered e-mails. He figured that anybody had something important to tell him they would phone him or find him in his office. For him e-mail was just a search-able black box of information. Now I’m not that smart, and maybe I’m also a bit more of control freak when it comes to e-mail (although he was a control freak in other ways).

I can’t stand having any e-mail in my in-box, and I hate wasting time on “doing” e-mail. I don’t believe you can “do” e-mail, but you sure can waste time with it.

There are lots of good blog post, books, podcasts, and web-sites that will give you advice on how to control your e-mail. I’m going to hit the highlights because I believe a one of things an outstanding manager does well is manage themselves. This includes managing their e-mail, and communicating well, which includes answering other’s questions, making decisions, and keeping up on the latest project and company statuses.

Unless you’re an eccentric genius who doesn’t need to be a good team player because he’s near the top of the class system. Then feel free to ignore this advice.

You can tame your e-mail habits, whatever they are, by:

  • Having a process,
  • Having a routine
  • Learning how your e-mail client can auto-magically file things for you
  • Not wasting time with a complicated filing system.

Have a Process

There are lots of different ways to process e-mail. It helps you decide quickly what to do with any particular message, and helps cut through the noise and lets you get to the important stuff.

Pick a process and stick to it. The best one I know is David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”, which goes something like this:

Decide what you need to do with it and do it.

  • If you can deal with it in less than two minutes, do it now. The time, energy, and mental capacity required to track this bit of trivia overwhelms the effort required to just do it now.
  • If it’s something that needs to be done on or before a particular date, put it in your calendar.
  • If it will take more than two minutes but not for a specific time, put it on your to-do list.
  • If you need to keep it for reference, file it.
  • If somebody else can or should do it, delegate it (and follow-up, but that’s a different post)
  • If it’s trash, then trash it.

Those are your only six choices. That’s it.

Have a Routine

Process your e-mail at a set time or times every day. Times that you’ve got scheduled in your calendar so you have no excuse. If you’re like me that will keep you from constantly checking your in-box. Or if you’re not like me it will help you block of the time you need to empty your in-box and return all those messages that people actually expect you, the leader, to read and give a thoughtful reply to.

And for the sake of your God or gods, if you haven’t done it already, please please please turn off the notification that makes noise and movement every time you get a new e-mail. Really? How are you going to get any work done with that thing going off all the time? Including your smart phone. Nobody you’re talking too wants to know that you’re thinking about all the e-mails you’re constantly getting. Yes, you’ll live.

Have Your Computer Do the Work

In Outlook and Gmail you can set up automatic filing or filters for incoming e-mail. This means the e-mails from your model railroad club, company newsletter, or Mustang restoration club can get put in the “Later When I Have Five Minutes to Kill At the End of the Day or on the Bus” Folder without you needing to do anything. Except set up the filter the first time.

Conversely you can set up a “Now!” folder, which your e-mail program opens to by default, for message from our boss and wife. Or both. Or either.

It’s amazing how much less intimidating and frustrating an in-box is when it’s not filled with crap, and you can focus on what’s important.

Don’t File – Archive & Forget

Coming up with a complex, complete, and correct filing system for your e-mail is a waste of time. As long as the subject line is sufficiently descriptive you can use the search function to find anything you need. Even then, you can also search in the body of the e-mail.

3 thoughts on “E-Mail Made Simple

  1. It is only since I returned from working in the US that I have heard this complaint from managers/leaders about having too much email, or overly full in boxes.

    As a team lead in the US I processed several hundred email a day, and frankly, with my team randomly distributed over the US, I don’t know how else I would have worked.

    I suspect that there is something in the Canadian management style that does not mesh well with email; as a communication means. Although in some cases it sounded more like bragging, “I am so important that my in box is always full”, or as an excuse, “I won’t communicate with you because my in box is always full”.

    I agree with your points, and would add a few more:

    – Shortest Job First; It keeps the maximum number of people happy in the shortest length of time. Just make sure you keep a priority system so that the longer responses eventually get sent.

    – Focus on ensuring the right people are part of the discussion.

    – Focus on the decision, not the discussion; If the right people are part of the discussion, then all you should need to do is read the last email in the thread.

    – Push for a conclusion; if the conversation splits, then change the subject text, if the discussion meanders, force a meeting. As the leader you don’t need to be part of the discussion, but you should monitor to ensure the discussion is fruitful.


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