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My approach to Email

February 25, 2009

Large & Pocket Moleskine

Lots has been said and written about Email in the past and nobody can deny it that for many of us it is impossible to imagine a world without email anymore, especially in the business world. It has changed our lives dramatically and as allowed us to conduct our business much faster and more efficient. But, has it really?!

Personally I believe there is nothing nicer than to come home and find a handwritten note in the post or a little Thank You note on your desk when you come into the office. Email has certainly taken over the business world during the last decade, whether we like it or not. And on many occasions we are drowning in email. About 18 months ago when I took on my current job, I received about 150 to 200 emails every day, all of them escalations – it was impossible to get through them all in time. Naturally I was looking for an alternative. And today I want to share this with you.

I want to divide my approach into several areas:
• Timing of email Review
• Get less email in
• Write less email
• Rules and folders
• Out of Office
• “Zero Inbox”

When you start researching this topic you will find out that restricting yourself to 2 times per day to check your emails it a very common approach; and: it works!

I have scheduled 2 meetings in my Outlook calendar for “e(mail) processing”: 11-12 and 16-17.00. By scheduling these times you will avoid that your colleagues can invite you to meetings at those times (by the way, I have done the same for my lunch time). The most difficult thing is to change our habit to be glued to your Inbox and start working on all incoming emails directly. I had to be honest with myself and admit that this is what I was doing. Once you discover your are going near you emails, sit back, take a deep breath and go back to what you need to do, a project, a workflow, writing an essay.

Here are some tips to help you with this:

The first thing I recommend you to do is to switch off your email notifications; most of the modern email clients such as Outlook or Thunderbird give you this option. It will help you as it reduced the distractions you are going to experience.
Another recommendation is to send out an autoreply to the sender and inform him/her that you have taken a new email approach (checking your emails twice a day at 11am and 4pm) to increase the efficiency and productivity. Should there be any emergencies that cannot wait until then, ask the sender to call you. This is Timothy Ferris approach to managing your emails (“The Four Hour Work Week”)
I have not tried this autoreply myself yet as I have not experienced any urgency that was not highlighted to me over the phone or in person.

One more important thing: it is a common habit BUT try not to start your working day by checking your email. You will very likely be dragged into replying emails for the rest of your day.

With the above set up you might already experience that the volume of email you receive will com down. However, there are some other things you can do.

There are few emails (and we all get them) that will only distract you from what you have set as your target to achieve. These could be notifications, newsletter you had subscribed to, RSS feeds, joke emails from friends etc.
First of all I suggest you try to keep a clear split between your business email and your private emails. Secondly I recommend to reduce the number of email you are not going to look at, such newsletter you have subscribed to years ago. If you don’t use them anymore, unsubscribe! Ask you friends not to send you email to your work email; you may upset a few of your friends, but remember what you want to achieve! Less emails!

It is logical – if you write less email, you get less replies back into your inbox.

At a seminar a few years ago I was told about a company in the UK and their attempt to avoid email completely for business use. I thought that this would just not work, however, it was a great success and productivity had increased dramatically. Why? Simply because people started to talk to each other and achieved a lot more by increasing the direct communication and avoid wasting time by waiting for replies.

This is something that I have implemented very successfully, particularly one rule. I have created a rule or agent in Outlook that scans all incoming emails and moves all email on which I am on “cc” only to a folder that I called “In Cc – no action needed”. I work with the assumption here that the email is only for my information and there is no need for me to get actively involved. With this in mind, I feel free to delete as many as possible during my Email processing times (11am and 4pm).

When I started this I had a rule created to send out an email the sender, informing them that I will not take action to increase my productivity. The feedback I have received was kind of negative – not because of the fact as such but because the rule sent out one email in response to every single email coming in. As many people “cc” me in, they got lots of email back from me and I had overfilled the inbox. As a result I have switched off this rule and have not received any further feedback at all.

I am sure you can think of many ways to use specific folders and rules. Monitor the email coming in and see which of those you don’t act upon and try to eliminate these, either by creating a rule or not getting them in the first place.

Don’t you know the feeling when you are coming back from a nice vacation and your inbox is filled with hundreds of emails? How much time do you spend going through all of them to get back to “normal”?

Here is what I have set up: Switch on your Out Of Office Reply saying something like this:

“Subject: I’ll back August, 6th

Dear Customers and Colleagues.

I am travelling on vacation and will return on Day and Date.

All email I receive until that time will be automatically deleted. Please resend your email after the Day and Date.
If you have an emergency please contact my Team by email (give email address here) or by phone at 123-4567 890.

That way I am not overwhelmed with playing “catch up” and can give you the immediate attention you deserve when I get back.
Fair enough?

Thank you for understanding this move to more efficiency, effectiveness and focus. It helps me to accomplish more to serve you better.

Have a great day.”

This is my overall and daily target with the 2 time slots I have allocated for Email processing – to review and file all emails.

This does not mean, I have answered or resolved all emails. It means, I have looked all emails and decided, what to do with them – just archive them without any further actions or assign a specific action to them; in which case I keep a note of it externally, that means in my GTD system and not in my Inbox.

I admit, on some days, I don’t meet my target; but on most days, I accomplish this task which gives me a good feeling when I do home and a good feeling when I arrive back in the office the next day, as I know there is no backlog waiting for me.

Feel free to adapt the above to your own liking and needs. The idea is to be clear but nice! Let people now what happens and how they still can get the information they are looking for despite your absence. It is important to follow this rule yourself though and not to route through your inbox when you come back into the office. Be nice to yourself too and DELETE.

Depending on your email client you may not be able to set a subject field in your Out of Office reply. Instead you can create a forward rule to an AutoResponder such as that will send out the above message.
I know that following these tips and ideas will help you to manage you email much more efficiently.

Let me know how your experience.

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