Monday, May 4, 2009

Principles of Effective Email Management

One of the greatest barriers to effective leadership, at least for me, is the tendency to get sucked into operations instead of strategy. And in the modern age much of the operational aspect of business is tied up in email -- and increasingly, online social media, but that's not the topic today.

There are some really terrific systems for effectively managing email but I try to stick to discussing principles rather than specific techniques and systems. There are plenty of people who have literally spent a lifetime developing productivity systems, including my friend and colleague Laura Stack, The Productivity Pro (R) in her book "Leave the Office Earlier: How to Get More Done in Less Time and Feel Great About it." Timothy Ferriss also has some great advice on email in his book "The Four Hour Work Week." Another great inbox management system is espoused by Len Merson of ChaosOver Inc. And last, an inspiration for this site, Leo Babauta, author of "The Power of Less" and blogger of "Zen Habits" has outstanding, simple advice for managing email.

Suffice it to say, if you have enough email in your inbox for the scroll bar to show up, you manage email poorly. I manage multiple organizations with memberships totalling in the thousands, and those members constantly have customer service requests. Yet, my inbox is empty at the end of every day and frequently during the day. Yes, it is possible. You can do it, too (read the books or get training from the people I listed in the paragraph above if you don't believe me).

So, what are the simple principles that drive effective email management?
  1. Do not use your inbox as a "To-Do" list. This is the single most important principle. Tatoo it on your forehead. It's very tempting to leave email in your inbox as a reminder. Avoid this temptation at all costs. The list constantly grows. Over time, other emails shuffle between "to-do" emails and before you know it, an email that needed a prompt reply gets lost. Now you have to write an apology for a late reply. Turn emails into actual to-do's, calendar appointments or file them in a "tickler" file.
  2. Search and destroy. Immediately delete all junk mail, forwarded jokes, "chain" emails that a "friend who cares" sent you. Browse and delete all "fyi" emails - if no action is required, then only one action is required: read and delete (or file if you are absolutely convinced you may have to look it up for some detail later). Get a good spam program and learn how to create "rules" in Outlook that automatically send emails with specific words (e.g., Viagra) to your junk mail.
  3. Automate. Create a "rule" (or macro) for regular emails that are simply "confirmations" (shipment notifications, voicemail attachments or email faxes, etc.) that auto files them (i.e., "Fax" folder). With a rule, they never get to your inbox to begin with -- they go straight to file. Make FAQ template response emails for questions that come up on a regular basis. Or, post them to your website and just email links to the sender.
  4. Delegate. See my previous post on "Simple Delegation." It's very tempting to answer an email simply because you know the answer and it will only take a second to reply. But, if you happen to have a staff person or coworker who is responsible for these types of requests, don't answer such emails under any circumstances. Always forward them to the appropriate person. If you reply, reply with "John will get back to you on this" or cc the sender with "Sally, can you please assist Mr. Johnson with this. Thank you." This does two things: 1) the person who is responsible stays responsible and 2) the sender is now trained to go to the correct person with such questions from now on.
Much more detail on the "how-to's" of creating rules, managing files, turning emails into tasks and calendar items are available from the productivity consultants and authors mentioned previously. I highly recommend them.

In general, though, stick to the basic principles and your email should stay under control: don't use your inbox as a "to-do" list, search and destroy, automate and delegate.