Communication is key to being an effective leader. And generally speaking, frequent and fast communication is better. However, many leaders over-do it when it comes to responding to email they receive.
By spending most days distracted by their computer or mobile device, many leaders miss out on:
- Clear, strategic thinking
- Uninterrupted work focused on pre-defined priorities
- Real conversations that demonstrate executive presence.
Back in the day, the volume of email I received was small enough that it was actually fun to receive email. I wanted to see the notification immediately. I acted on the email right away, and then I filed it into a system of folders. Sometimes, I amazed people with my ability to find an old email containing needed information.
Times have changed. It’s not uncommon for me to receive scores of daily email requiring action – this is not counting spam, e-newsletters, and CCs. Such a high volume makes it impossible to act on every email as soon as it arrives, without distracting me from productive work and meetings. On the positive side, email search functionality has improved well enough that it’s no longer necessary to spend time sorting old emails into file folders — even if I archive all old emails into a single folder, I’m 99% confident that I’ll find any email when I need it.
Four Basic Email Tricks
Over the years, I’ve adopted several practices to maximize productivity despite the increasing volume of email. Here are four foundational practices I recommend, regardless of the email program you use.
- Turn off notifications on your desktop computer and mobile devices. An incoming email is not more important than the person you are currently talking to or the task you had proactively chosen to work on. Every time you take your focus off your current conversation or task to look at an incoming email, you subtract from your leadership presence and deep thinking.
- Invest time setting up email filters. I use several filters so that only key email hits my inbox. Here are my two most important filters:
- CC Mail: If my name doesn’t appear in the “To” field of an email, it goes into a “CC Mail” folder. These CC (and BCC) emails rarely require me to take action, and it saves a huge amount of distraction to keep them out of my inbox. I simply scan the folder several times each week to help me stay in the loop. The following image shows how I created this filter in Google Apps (Gmail).
- Bulk Mail: As you know, spam is unsolicited email, and your email program should be helping you filter out that email automatically. Bulk email (also called “Bacn”) refers to e-newsletters, social media digests, monthly billing statements, and other email that you want to receive but has zero urgency. It’s a pain to set up a filter that includes all these senders (and add new ones as you sign up for them), but over time it adds up to a lot of time saved; also, email programs are beginning to provide smart filters that help automate this. These emails skip my inbox and go into a separate folder that I review a few times each month.
- Determine how often and what time you really need to process your email. Given my role, I perform best if I limit this to once or twice per day … mid-morning, plus (if that day’s schedule allows) a late-afternoon session. My main goal is to spend one hour or less per day on email, for the sake of productivity; my secondary goal is to respond to emails within 24 hours after receipt, for the sake of service. Depending on your role, you may need to be more or less responsive; however, it’s hard to imagine anyone truly needing to process their email more than four times per day.
- Stop using email as your to-do list. Because emails often contain assignments for us, it’s extremely tempting to use an email as a visual reminder of an action you need to take. But that’s a recipe for lost focus. If you can’t resolve an email within a few minutes, add it to a real to-do list and archive the email. (BONUS #1: Task-management apps like ToodleDo let you add a task by simply forwarding the email. BONUS #2: Project-management apps like Basecamp helps you keep conversations and tasks organized around the project, rather than stuck in your email.)
Three Advanced Tricks
Over the past year, I have found three plugins to be a godsend:
- Boomerang (available for Gmail and Outlook): If there is an email I don’t need to deal with until a future time, Boomerang hides it and returns it to my inbox at the appropriate date or hour. Perhaps more importantly, when I send an email that I may need to follow up on later, Boomerang will put a copy of my email in my inbox at the set date/time. As a result, my follow-ups are much easier (no need to make it a task on a to-do list), and I can follow-up consistently and without fail.
- Inbox Pause (currently available only for Gmail): OK, so I’ve decided to check my email only at certain times of the day. In the meantime, however, if I go into email to look up information for a project, I can’t help but notice some “urgent” email that has just arrived. Unlike Gmail, some apps have an offline option; but often those won’t let you send emails while in offline mode (which I often need to do).With Inbox Pause, emails don’t appear in my inbox until I decide to see them. When I’m ready to process my email, I turn Pause off so that I can see all the emails sent to me since the last time, and then I turn Pause back on so I can process the emails without being distracted by new emails coming in.
- The Email Game (currently available only for Gmail): Gamification comes to email! This new plugin uses feedback, urgency, and a bit of fun to help me achieve my goal of keeping my email-processing times to one or less per day. The Email Game keeps a timer on my screen to encourage me to process each email within a matter of minutes – and it provides immediate feedback each time I reply or archive an email.
Note: All three plugins are from the company Baydin, which is either a coincidence or a sign that no one else is focusing on Gmail productivity. I’m not affiliated with nor compensated by Badin.
To be clear, I’m not saying that I hate email. It’s an efficient way to communicate (though email’s lack of nonverbal communication can also result in misunderstandings). But many of us receive so much email, that it can take away from our day-to-day productivity and leadership. These seven tips can help you manage email efficiently and effectively.
Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the Engaging Leader podcast, host of the Game Changer podcast series, and managing principal of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.