Taming email communications – part 3

email_iconA few years ago, Merlin Mann conceived the notion of Inbox Zero. In a speech at Google he eloquently described what it is we all want: to finally gain control of our overflowing inboxes, and ultimately, our lives. The concept was simple; we need to aim for zero mail in our inbox.

Easier said than done, right? How many people’s email inboxes are really empty at anytime during the day? Not many.

But the fact of the matter is that there are people who are in control of their email. They do achieve Inbox Zero on a consistent basis and receive all the benefits Merlin promised. They view email as a part of their productivity habit – not as the bane of their existence.

Surely there must be common behaviors that everyone can utilize to get control of their inboxes, right? Below are some “email behavior patterns and practices” that will help you successfully manage your inbox.

Turn off all alerts and notifications

AlertsAs I said in my first post Taming email communications – part 1, there is a huge negative productivity cost of continuously checking email and anything that interrupts what you are doing sap your productivity.

You must embrace the mindset that you are the master of email, not the other way around. To get started on that path of taking back your time and attention, turn off all alerts, pings, buzzes, badge icons, toast and sounds when you get or send email. This also applies to all your social media and other incoming potential distractions.

All those notifications have done is to train us, to constantly be ready to break from our real work and rush over to see the latest piece of spam. Don’t stop at your Outlook desktop email client; make sure to turn off all the alerts on your mobile devices as well.

Schedule time to do email

CalendarSo, now that you have turned off all those notifications and are no longer responding to email as it comes in you are ready to deal with email proactively. The first thing you need to do is to schedule time to do email on your calendar and have the discipline to resist checking email until you have a designated time to do it.

Far too many of us “do email all the time” constantly checking email on all of our devices. We’re constantly in a state of fear regarding the obligations we have sitting in our inboxes, and regularly worry about how many unread mails we have. This is classic fear of missing out (FOMO) and it drives this need to check email. So, we squeeze mail management into every moment we have of the day.

Because we do mail “all the time,” we’re never really completely focused on it.  We’re trying to get through the small stuff, the administrative and unimportant ones… but when we get one that requires a thoughtful reply, seems long or important, or has a deliverable, we leave it in the inbox because we don’t have the time right now to deal with it.

If that sounds like you, please consider scheduling time for email.  When you focus on email, you don’t miss emails and you communicate better.  You actually get both faster and better at email, in part because of the deadline and in part because of the focus your putting on it.

Choose several windows of time each day to tackle your inbox. Depending on your job, you will have different needs for time and frequency for this activity. Some professionals take five minutes at the top of each hour and others set aside time each morning and afternoon.  Personally, I allocate three half hour blocks of time to process my email – once early in the morning, once late in the morning, and then once late in the day.

Stop Using Your Inbox as a To-Do List

TodoDo you leave emails in your inbox so that you will remember to read or tackle them later? If so, you’re using your email to manage your tasks – and those are actually two very different things. Instead, use a separate task manager – I recommend Evernote – so you can spend less time sifting through your inbox, and more time getting your most important work done.

Why do you need to separate these activities out? If you’re conflating email and task management, then the job of simply communicating – reading and replying to your messages – gets bogged down by all the emails you leave sitting in your inbox simply so you won’t forget to address them.

Also, when you check your inbox for an update on a key project or task its easy to get derailed by a stream of unrelated work or personal messages and forget what you were trying to do in the first place. It’s like surfing the web used to be a few years ago.

The reason so many of us fall into the trap of conflating email and task management is that email is inextricable from much of what we do in work and in life. Many of our tasks arrive in the form of email messages, and many other tasks require reading or sending emails as part of getting that work done.

Read once and make a decision so you never touch an email twice

decisionYour goal when reading emails is not to complete everything, but rather read it once and make a decision.  People who have perfected achieving Inbox Zero rely on a pre-defined list of options when reading email.

By simply knowing the possible outcome of each email, it’s much easier to clear your email.  Most people process email thinking: delete, archive or reply.  But that’s the problem! The emails that get stuck in our inboxes do not fall under those categories.

These emails need to be turned into tasks or relate to tasks that we are already working on. In addition to containing tasks, many times these emails could be the starting point of a project or actually be related to projects we are already working on.

You need to have a system & method in place to quickly turn those emails into their associated tasks and projects.  There should be no thinking (procrastinating) as to how to process those emails.  Focus on reading the email content, and deciding what it is. By reading once and making a decision about the email, you save yourself from looking at that same email over and over until you finally deal with it.

Don’t organize in email folders because it makes you less productive

foldersI know this is going to be counterintuitive to many people. For years I arranged my inbox with a series of elaborate nested folders. Now I only have 5 folders.

Search has become so good in recent years that it is no longer worth the productivity hit to organize email in folders.

If you are spending time reading emails, creating email folders, and moving emails around to various folders, searching for emails in folders, please reconsider.  Rather than cleaning your inbox, you are creating several more inboxes, just with different names.  All those emails most likely will have to re-read for reasons mentioned above.

All you need are 5 folders: inbox, trash, draft, sent and archive (All Mail for Gmail users).  As noted above, if emails are tasks or projects or related to any of them, you’ll make the decision when reading the email. Once you’ve done that, the email should be moved to your archive folder. If you need the email in the future you can easily search for it.

Choose your words carefully and remember “less is more”

BrevityBe concise and specific when writing an email, every word matters. Be crisp in your delivery. If you are describing a problem, define it clearly. Doing this well requires more time, not less.

Practice Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) communications where you summarize the exact purpose of the email and any actions required first. This allows the reader to know exactly what the email is and what actions they need to take in the least amount of time. Then they can decide if they want or need to continue reading.

learn the “gift of brevity”

Most email is now read on smartphones instead of large screens so an email that doesn’t require the reader to scroll down the screen on a smartphone is more easily read. So, keep it short and specify exactly what you need in return (actions steps like, “Please RSVP by COB today”).

Too many of today’s professionals feel like they need to include a lot of background and supporting information in their emails. Not so. Less is more! Practice BLUF and put critical information in the first sentence (or two) instead of burying it in the bottom of the email. You’re not writing a mystery novel where the whodunit is discovered at the end of the message.

This is even more important if your email is addressed to senior people in the company. Remember “less is more.”

Use clear, easy-to-understand subject lines

SubjectThink of the subject line as the ultimate BLUF. An easy to understand subject line will help the reader to quickly figure out the purpose of your message, what they need to do, and whether or not they can quickly respond. Craft your subject line to be specific about what actions you expect once it has been read.

Also, if the conversation in an email changes, give it a new subject line. It is extremely easy for information to get overlooked in an email when the content of the message no longer matches the subject line.

Use a phone call or video chat instead of email

callIf an issue truly is urgent, then employees should not be sending emails to one another. Opt instead for the phone. Some people are too “busy” to be bothered with quick phone conversations. They would rather send 10 messages than talk to you for two minutes in person.

There are times when it’s quicker and more efficient to contact someone by calling instead of emailing (such as when you need an immediate answer to a question). A brief phone call can eliminate the back and forth that sometimes occurs with email. And, at the end of the call, you can send a follow-up email summarizing next steps and who will do what.

Another benefit of a call is that you can’t always grasp the true tone of an online conversation. A phone call, video chat, or short in-person meeting can allow you to avoid inadvertently giving the wrong impression and can help you avoid misunderstandings.

Sure, you can use emoticons, but that comes across as unprofessional (or doesn’t convey true emotion), so it’s probably best to pick up the phone instead.

Respond in a timely manner

timelyThere are people who can be relied upon to respond promptly to emails, and those who can’t. Strive to be one of the former. Make it a goal to respond within one business day to all messages that come in.

Most of the best and busiest people act quickly on their emails, not just to us or to a select few senders, but to everyone. Being responsive sets up a positive communications feedback loop whereby your team and colleagues will be more likely to include you in important discussions and decisions.

Don’t respond to every email

replyYou don’t need to respond to most email. Yes, you read that correctly. Not every email needs a response. If the email is just informational and doesn’t require a response, don’t send one.

Unsubscribe – Remove yourself from unnecessary subscriptions and advertising

unsubscribeUnsubscribe from all those subscriptions, daily newsletters, blog updates, stock feeds and alerts on social media accounts. Instead, utilize a RSS feed reader like Feedly to keep track of your information sources. Get them out of email!

While you need to be diligent to malicious phishing attempts, most subscriptions and advertising make it relatively easy to unsubscribe. This is an unfortunate but necessary part of today’s email reality.

Limit the number of people when addressing email

addressEmails that are sent to many recipients tend to get out of control pretty fast.  These emails, especially if not written properly, can get everyone commenting back and forth and pulling the tone email in their own direction. One outgoing email can easily jam your Inbox with twenty follow-up email replies. So if you must send email to many recipients be crystal clear about the message and expected outcome for the recipients, if any.

Only use BCC to remove someone from an email thread

BCCCopy people openly or don’t copy them at all. The only time I recommend using the BCC feature is when you are removing someone from an email thread. Otherwise don’t use it.

When you reply all to a lengthy series of emails, move the people who are no longer relevant to the thread to the bcc field, and state in the text of the note that you are doing this. They will be relieved to have one less irrelevant note cluttering up their inbox and hopefully they will do the same for you.

Leverage modern software to decrease email volumes and ease email processing

slack-200x200Tools like Slack can have a positive impact on email volumes. The persistent nature of the conversations in Slack makes it ideal for some collaboration that would have otherwise occurred via email. The amount of reduction depends on how much your team culture supports this way of working and how strong adoption is among your fellow collaborators.

Because the center of gravity has shifted from the PC to mobile, most of the innovation in email clients is happening on iOS and Android. This is where Silicon Valley is investing the most resources and therefore there is a lot of competition and innovation in this space.

I like Microsoft’s Outlook for Android and iOS and it has become my favorite way to process email. I can quickly and easily triage my email using Outlook on a smartphone. It divides the inbox into “Focused” and “Other” views and it does an excellent job of putting the most important and relevant email in the “Focused” queue. Then you can efficiently swipe to delete or archive the email with a flick of the thumb.

Even better it has the same interface on both iOS and Android. Goodbye Mail.app and Gmail clients!

Conclusion

That’s my guidance on how to master email in today’s environment. I realize full Inbox Zero may be too big of a change for many people but if you use these patterns and practices, I guarantee your email experience will be much better. I hope it helps!

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Is Inbox Zero Achievable?

EmailWhen Merlin Mann conceived the notion of Inbox Zero, he eloquently described a notion of how to finally gain control of our overflowing email inboxes with the simple concept of aiming for zero mail in our Inbox.

Recently, I was discussing Inbox Zero with someone who thought it was not possible to have a clean inbox at least once a day. They reasoned, that there was no way to be able “do email” for enough of the 24 hours in a day to be able to get to it all. So, why even try?

I know it sounds impossible but the fact of the matter is that there are people who are in complete control of their email. They do achieve Inbox Zero on a consistent basis. They look at email as a part of their personal productivity workflow, not as the bane of their existence.

Here are common traits these successful Inbox Zero’ers employ:
 

They only read an email once

Successful Inbox Zero’ers have a trusted system and a processing method in place to quickly turn those emails into tasks or projects. There is no thinking or procrastinating as to how to process those emails so they can focus on reading the email content, deciding what it is, and processing it.

Your goal when reading emails is not to complete everything, but rather to read the email once and make a decision.  People who have perfected achieving Inbox Zero do this religiously. Never read an email and keep it in your inbox – this forces you to read it again sometime later.

Many times, people read an email and decide to hold off on dealing with that one right now, and then move onto another email. This is BAD because it not only creates a backlog of emails and you will end up looking at that same email at least one more time. Most likely, if you leave an email in your inbox you will re-read it several times.

They employ the Two Minute Rule.

If you can deal with the email in less than two minutes then just do it! You would be surprised what you can do in two minutes! It’s called the “Two Minute Rule” because if you determine an action can be done in two minutes or less, then you actually should do it right then because it’ll take longer to organize it and review it than it would be to actually finish it the first time you notice it. This applies to processing email.

They create clearly defined tasks

When reading an email, if it is actionable and will take more than 2 minutes to complete, then turn that email into a task (or a project if it is a multi-action item) in your trusted system. Then either delete the original email or move it to your Archive folder. For me, I just forward it to my Evernote email address, delete or archive the email and move to the next email.

When creating your task, remember the subject line of the email is what the sender thought was relevant but not necessarily what you want to e the title of your task to be. When turning the email into a task it is important you re-write the subject line to something that makes sense to you and is actionable. This way when you review your Next Action list, you can better gauge when and where what you want to get done will be done.

They don’t organize email in folders

Over the years, many people have developed elaborate folder structures to file their email. The unfortunate result of this is rather than cleaning your inbox, you are just creating several more inboxes. Now, you have to THINK about how you are going to file that email and you have to spend the time actually navigating to the folder you want to file it in. Even worse, now all those emails most likely will have to re-read.

Instead, you should just have just 4 emails folders: Inbox, Sent Items, Deleted Items and Archive in addition to the mandatory Junk Mail and Drafts for Outlook users. Once you have processed an email you should file it in one big archive folder and then use search if you ever need to reference the email in the future.

Less is more. Inbox Zero is the most efficient way to process email. Period.

How to achieve Inbox Zero every day

emailAs a manager I continually hear people complain how email is taking more of their time and that they don’t have enough time left for the important stuff.  It is kind of like complaining about the number of meetings they have to attend and then not having enough time for the important stuff.

If email is taking up a disproportionate amount of your time, then you need to do something about it. Take charge of your situation. Don’t let the constant stream of incoming emails take control of your priorities and time.

I assert that it’s actually less effort to maintain your email inbox at zero rather than to keep any amount of mail that has been read in your inbox. I know this sounds counterintuitive to most people.  Ideally, you should check your email inbox three times a day and process it to zero.

It is interesting to see when people give demos or presentations with their own machines how many people have read and unread email sitting in their inboxes.  Some people I know have hundreds or thousands of unread emails sitting in their inbox. Even worse, many have thousands or tens of thousands of read emails still in their inboxes.

That is what you get when you check it too often, and don’t have the appropriate amount of time to adequately respond or deal with the email. You tend to just leave it there in your inbox. When you leave a lot of old and outdated items laying around in your inbox, your subconscious knows there is still something to be done and it won’t let go of that until it is dealt with. Additionally, now you have to read the email again at a later time to deal with it.

This is totally inefficient. There is a better way – Inbox Zero.

Let’s face it, it will be difficult to go from checking email continuously all day to every three hours or so. It will take effort to change your habits but once you get in an inbox zero habit you will realize it is dramatically superior to your old email processing routines and that will have ripple effects across your productivity, workflow, energy and motivation.

I can hear some you as I write this… “What about emergencies, what about my boss, people need me, what about the important project…” The reality is, over time, people will adjust to your way of processing email. They will learn to call, text or stop by if it is truly time sensitive.

The reason it’s actually less effort to maintain it at zero than to maintain it at 1,000 is that you don’t waste energy dealing with any particular email more than once. The decision about the next action is still unmade for much of what lies in your inbox. In GTD terms it is still “stuff” – something in your world for which the action is still unclear. Every time you consciously or unconsciously notice that email again and don’t deal with it, it wastes energy.

Every single item in your inbox needs to be processed only once. If you need more than two minutes to process a specific email, you process it to your trusted system. In my case that is Evernote. When I am processing email and I run across an actionable email that takes more then two minutes to deal with, I just forward it to my default Evernote address.  That way it is waiting for me in my “Unprocessed” Notebook ready to be processed the next time I am processing.

This way I ensure that my inbox is always down to zero and that at least for a few hours I have that inbox zero peace of mind. Every day, my goal is to complete everything on my “today” list that came from my Daily Review and to process my inbox to zero. Then I can go home with the piece of mind of knowing that I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish and my inbox is completely processed and nothing is going to slip thru the cracks.

How do you maintain your inbox zero?

How to achieve email Nirvana

email_nirvanaMany people complain how email is taking them a lot of time, but that’s what you get once you check it too often, and when you leave a lot of old and outdated items laying around in your inbox.

I assert that it’s actually less effort to maintain your email inbox at zero than to keep any amount of mail that has been read in your inbox. It will take effort to change your habits but once you get in an inbox zero habit you will realize it is dramatically superior to your old email processing routines and that will have ripple effects across your productivity, workflow and motivation.

The reason it’s actually less effort to maintain it at zero than to maintain it at 500 is that you don’t waste energy dealing with any particular email more than once. The decision about the next action is still unmade for much of what lies in your inbox. In GTD terms it is still “stuff” – something in your world for which the action is still unclear. Every time you consciously or unconsciously notice that email again and don’t deal with it, it wastes energy.

Every single item in your inbox needs to be processed only once. If you need more than two minutes to process a specific email, you process it to your task manager. In my case that is Evernote. When I am processing email and I run across an actionable email that takes more then two minutes to deal with, I just forward it to my default Evernote address.  That way it is waiting for me in my “Unprocessed” Notebook ready to be processed the next time I am processing.

This way I ensure that my inbox is always down to zero and have that inbox zero peace of mind. How do you maintain your inbox zero?

How to reduce the number of emails in your inbox

Like any other tool, email is what you make it. It’s an incredible tool of productivity, collaboration and knowledge-sharing that is ubiquitous across devices and operating systems. That’s not to say I haven’t struggled with it like everybody else does but I have learned to tame email.

I’m sure you yourself have experienced this. On average I receive over 100 emails every day. How many of these are really important? Generally, less than 10. It’s time to create some space in your inbox so you can really focus on the tasks that make a difference to your business or work.

Here are three simple suggestions for reducing the number of emails in your inbox:

  1. Unsubscribe. Be ruthless and unsubscribe from any unsolicited email lists that make it past your spam filter.  Don’t just delete it, take the time to unsubscribe and then you won’t receive any more form that sender. Be realistic and remove all unnecessary subscriptions that you may have actually signed up for too.
  2. Stop using your Inbox like a filing cabinetPractice Inbox Zero! It’s easy to let old emails pile up over time and disappear into a large, unorganized mass in your inbox. You might think to yourself that someday, perhaps, you’ll need old messages so you should store them forever. Stop thinking of your inbox as a filing cabinet and get rid of old emails completely.
  3. Send fewer emails – Every time you send an email, what’s going to happen? It’s going to trigger a response, and then you’re going to have to respond to that response, and then they’re going to add some people on the “cc” line, and then those people are going to respond.

What suggestions do you have to reduce the number of emails in your inbox?

Email Overload!

Everyone I know complains about email overload. Email has become a serious problem. When we don’t control our email habit, we are controlled by it.

Email pours in, with no break to its flow. It is unyielding.  And like addicts, we check it incessantly, drawing ourselves away from meetings, conversations, personal time, our priorities, important tasks or whatever is right in front of us.

People seem to think that since we receive email almost instantly that we should reply in kind. Doing that is like waiting for the postal worker for all hours, opening and closing the door to check the mail nonstop every day. That would be a waste of time and energy. Do you do the same thing with email? Of course not! Instead, you keep your email application open, waiting for that imminent notification alert to come so you can check and see what new thing just got delivered to your inbox.

As soon as an email arrives in our inbox, we feel a compelling urge to reply immediately. Generally, we are afraid that we might miss an important message or fail to respond in a timely fashion. Many corporate cultures mistakenly exasperate this pressure to reply immediately. What if someone needs an immediate response? Worrying about that is precisely the kind of misguided rationalization that reinforces our addiction. And, in the off chance that they need a response within minutes, then they will find another way to reach us like calling, instant messaging or texting.

It’s not just the abundance of email that’s our problem — it’s the inefficiency in how we deal with it. Instead of checking email continuously and from multiple devices, schedule specific email time during the day while you are at your computer. We are most efficient when we answer email in bulk at our computers. We move faster, can access files when we need them and easily access other programs like our calendars and trusted systems. Also, when we sit down for the express purpose of doing emails, we have our email heads on. We are more focused, more driven, wasting no time in processing our inbox to zero.

I bulk process my email three times a day in 30-minute increments, once in the morning, once mid-day, and once before leaving for the day. This allows me to go thru my email faster and with more attention than before. I don’t make those I’m-moving-too-fast mistakes like copying the wrong person or sending an email before finishing it. So I’m also more efficient.

Email is no longer an overwhelming burden to me. I’m spending an hour and a half a day on it, which for me is the right amount. You may need more or less time per day to process your email. Experiment and then schedule the appropriate time on your calendar to process it.

How do you process email?