A recent survey showed that only 12% of business managers thought e-mail improved productivity!! E-mail is a relatively new form of business communication and one that creates challenges as well as opportunities. Could we manage without it? Are we managing it – or is it managing us?
This chapter will give lots of practical tips and techniques about:
How to manage the frequency and quantity of e-mails
- How to prioritise e-mails
- Tips for taming your emails
- How to write action orientated e-mails quickly and effectively
E-MAIL – YOUR FRIEND OR FOE?
A study by TNS Research and commissioned by Hewlett Packard found that workers who are distracted by interruptions such as frequent phone calls, e-mails, and text messages actually suffer a greater loss of IQ than someone who smokes marijuana!
The problem isn’t the e-mail itself. The problem is the constant interruptions in your work day that reduce productivity and leave you feeling tired and unable to focus.
Dr. Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King’s College in London carried out 80 clinical trials on the IQ of 1,100 UK office workers, monitored throughout the day. What he found is that when people tried to juggle e-mail, phone calls, and text messages along with their work, their IQs dropped by a full 10 points. That’s the same as missing a whole night’s sleep and more than the four-point decline seen after someone smokes pot.
In a newspaper article Dr Wilson said, “This is a very real and widespread phenomenon. We have found that this obsession with looking at messages, if unchecked, will damage a worker’s performance by reducing their mental sharpness. Companies should encourage a more balanced and appropriate way of working.”
You could say on this evidence that e-mails in particular have an addictive, drug-like grip. A big part of the problem is an almost complete lack of discipline in handing e-mail. Most of us feel compelled to reply to each new message, and this leads to a relentless change in our mental direction.
ARE WE MANAGING TECHNOLOGY OR IS TECHNOLOGY MANAGING US?
Here are some facts:
Fully two-thirds of workers check their e-mail when they aren’t working, including when they are on holiday.
- 50% respond to an e-mail within an hour of receiving it.
- 20% will interrupt a business or social engagement to respond to an e-mail.
- 90% said anyone who answers e-mail during face-to-face meetings is rude, but 30 percent admitted it’s also a sign of diligence and efficiency.
OFFICE OVERLOAD IN THE 21ST CENTURY
As technology in the 21st Century increases the amount of information we receive we need 21st Century management skills to deal with this effectively. “National Work-Life Conflict Study” by Health Canada is a study that looked at 31,500 employees in large organisations (500+ employees).According to one of the authors, Linda Duxbury of Carleton University, technology is enabling workers to work longer hours, but “It’s not a straight link of more hours equals more productivity. Just because you can reach people quicker does not mean they can perform the task quicker. What’s happened is the ability to communicate has increased tremendously, but the ability to get the job done has not gone up at the same pace.”
In fact, the distraction and constant interruption from our technology tools may actually be stealing our productivity. For instance, two years ago at CeBIT, the largest European technology show, Microsoft VP Linda Stone coined the phrase “continuous partial attention”. The technology that surrounds us in the workplace continually moves us from one priority to the next, with little or no time for focus. We constantly are drawn to the urgent, not necessarily the important.
So what do we do?
We could ban e-mails completely!!
Not as mad as you might think, recently during an interview with CNN I advocated that those with technology at their fingertips (pda’s, laptops, blackberry’s etc) should switch them off in the evenings or at weekends. This was met with shock by the interviewer but sometimes draconian measures are needed: Phones-4-U in the UK banned internal e-mails in its offices resulting in an average time saving of over 2 hours per day. Not so mad now, you’re thinking, but would it work in my organisation? Probably not, but we need to be more in control of the information that comes to us via cyberspace.
It is said that a copy of the London Times newspaper carries in it more information than someone who lived in the 17th Century would acquire in the whole of his/her life. We live in the 21st Century so we should develop 21st Century methods of dealing with this information overload. There are many tips and techniques in this chapter but I’ll start with the most basic (and most effective technique).
Schedule Uninterrupted Time to Process and Organise E-Mail and post
How many interruptions do you get every each day? It’s nearly impossible to complete anything when you allow or suffer from constant interruptions from the phone, people stopping by your office, and instant messaging. So it’s critical that you set aside uninterrupted time to process and organise your e-mail. I ask again – are you in control of technology or is it controlling you. Do you rush to the computer every time you see the ‘You have mail’ or do you process them at a time and frequency that keeps you, your boss, your colleagues and clients happy?
Many e-mail messages require you to make a decision. Good decisions require focus, and focus requires uninterrupted attention. You need to establish a regular time each day to process your e-mail so that you can empty your Inbox. Of course, you can scan your e-mail during the day for urgent messages or requests from your boss. If you need to set an Outlook reminder to do this regularly it means you only get two or three interruptions during the day instead of 20-30.
Book yourself a recurring appointment for up to an hour a day (depending on the number of e-mails you receive) to process e-mail, and mark it as “busy.” During this time don’t answer the phone or take interruptions, and work only on processing your Inbox.
At first, keeping these appointments will take discipline, but over time the discipline becomes habit. And once you get to zero e-mail in your Inbox, you’ll see the value of this one hour a day and you’ll stick to it like glue.
Process One Item at a Time, Starting at the Top
HOW TO PRIORITISE E-MAILS
Technology is often heralded as a servant for us, yet we frequently become a servant to it. E-mail was trumpeted as the new communications tool that would surely put first class ‘snail mail’ out of business. E-mail is a useful tool, but many feel controlled by this relatively new method of communication. The average businessperson is getting around 80 e-mails per day and many feel that about 80% of the messages in their ‘Inbox’ are of little or no value.
The ‘Four D’s for Decision Making’(4 D’s) model is based on the prioritising tool we discussed earlier in Chapter 2 and is a valuable tool for processing e-mail, helping you to quickly decide what is important and what is urgent; what action to take with each item and how to remove it from the Inbox.
How often have you opened, read, and closed the same e-mail over and over? Some of our e-mails are getting lots of attention but no action. Like your paperwork it is always better to handle each e-mail only once before taking action—which means you have to make a decision as to what to do with it and where to put it.
Under the 4 D’s model, you have four choices:
1. Delete it
2. Do it
3. Delegate it
4. Defer it
‘Delete it’ you ask!!!! Relax it’s not that scary – you probably only use a small proportion of your incoming e-mails anyway but we have a few tips for deleting information in case we need it for the future. A good tip is to log the number of e-mails that require action as you log onto your system. At least then you’ll have some idea of how many of your e-mails add to your productivity. If you do use a large percentage of what you keep, then whatever method you are using is working. But many of you are keeping a lot more than you use.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you decide what to delete:
Does the e-mail relate to a meaningful objective you’re currently working on? Why hang on to information that doesn’t relate to your key objectives?
- Am I worried that I may need it but don’t know why?
- Does the e-mail contain information you can find elsewhere?
- Does the e-mail contain information that you will refer to within the next six months?
- Does the e-mail contain information that you’re required to keep?
- What would realistically happen if I couldn’t find this email again and could I live with this?
If the answer to these is YES then you could probably delete it?
Do It Now
If you can’t DELETE IT, then decide what to do. Ask yourself if the e-mail is both urgent and important – “What will happen if I don’t action it today?”, “What do I need to do with this?” and “Can I action it in less than two minutes?” If you can, just do it now.
There is no point in filing an e-mail or closing an e-mail if you can complete it in less than 2 minutes. You’ll be surprised how much mail you can process in less than 2 minutes. You could file the e-mail, you could respond to the e-mail, or you could make a phone call. You can probably process a fair proportion of your e-mail e-mails in less than two minutes and it gets you into the mentality of making quick e-mail decisions rather than procrastinating about them.
If you ‘flag your e-mail’ as a priority item it will show in your ‘to-do’ section of your Outlook 2007 Calendar for you to deal with today (or your follow-up folder if you use Outlook 2003). You can drag and drop the email into your calendar for completion today (to do this, right click on the e-mail and drag it onto the task or calendar icons on the navigation pane). Dragging the email onto your Outlook Calendar turns it into a appointment that you can then set reminders for. If you do drag and drop the original e-mail will stay where it is until it is deleted.
If you can’t delete it or do it in two minutes or less, can you delegate it or forward it on to someone else for them to process? If you can delegate it, do it right away by forwarding it to a colleague and sending the delegating e-mail in about two minutes. Once you delegate the action, delete the original e-mail or move it into your e-mail reference system.
You can also turn the email into a task item by dragging and dropping it to turn it into a task and that can be assigned to someone else as a delegated item. You do this by dragging it onto the TASK pane of the navigation window in Outlook and complete the task dialogues. You can also set a priority for follow up and assign a category for easy reference. We cover how to do this in more detail in Chapter 5.
If you cannot delete it, do it now, or delegate it, and the action required is something that only you can accomplish and that will take more than two minutes. You need to defer it and deal with it after you are done processing your e-mail.
As we’ve mentioned before you can turn it into an actionable task or turn it into an appointment or calendar item (to do this, right click on the e-mail and drag it onto the task or calendar icons on the navigation pane). When you’re using Outlook, you can DEFER e-mails with actions by turning the e-mail into a task on your Task List. Name the task to clearly state what action is required so that you don’t have to reopen the e-mail. The result is a clearly defined list of actions in your task list that you can prioritise and schedule to complete on your Calendar.
You may also defer by using e-mail rules to automatically determine what happens to the e-mail in relation to pre-determined criteria. by right clicking the e-mail you will produce the create rule command that brings up create rule box that allows you to specify by who it’s from or what’s contained in the subject line what will automatically happen to the e-mail. You can programme e-mail from a colleague to go straight into a project folder or ones from your biggest client to go into the ‘current client folder’ automatically.
Lorna works in PR. Today she received an email from a client wanting to review her company’s current brochure. She decides to action it today so she flags the email for a priority response for today. She ensures that the client receives an acknowledgement so she drags and drops the email onto Contacts on her Outlook navigation pane. It opens her contacts list and creates a new contact for this contact. She also includes this contact in her ‘new enquiries’ category for future reference.
She decides to invite the client to her new product launch next month. So she drags and drops the email onto the Tasks (on the navigation pane) with the subject ‘Product launch invites’.
She then clicks reply on the email and attaches a pdf file that includes an invitation to the launch.
She returns to the email and decides that she will send a brochure at the end of the day so she drags and drops the original email onto her Calendar on the navigation pane. It converts it to an appointment and she sets a reminder for 4.30 that day to ‘Send brochure’. She colour codes this in blue in case she has the time to do it earlier in the day.
Once she has completed the above tasks she deletes the original email.
Do it daily
Using the 4 D’s model on a daily basis makes it easier to handle a large quantity of e-mail. Studies show that on average we can process about 100 e-mails an hour. If you receive 40 to 100 e-mails per day, all you need is one hour of uninterrupted e-mail processing time to get through your Inbox. Statistics show that of the e-mail you receive:
- 50% can be deleted or filed for reference
- 30% can be delegated or completed in less than 2 minutes
- 20% can be deferred to your Task List or Calendar to complete later
Of course, if you have a backlog of thousands of e-mails, it will take time and effort to get to the stage where your daily routine keeps you up to date and in check. Set yourself a target of clearing, let’s say 100 per day by filtering by date, sent by, message or subject to get the backlog down, so setting sessions of time aside to work through it every day will help you to do that. This way you can really get to grips with your e-mails every day using the 4 D’s.
Set a reminder in Outlook to process your e-mails at the start of the day for no more than 10 minutes and then at regular intervals during the day to check and process what has come in and will need actioning.
- Block off specific times to process your e-mail. Ensure it is at regular intervals and resist the temptation to check e-mail more frequently.
- Turn off the e-mail ‘pop-up’ on your computer – it encourages distraction.
- Clear your Inbox every day – don’t let it become a catch-all folder for everything you are working on. Create new mail folders with names that categorise your mail and move messages into them. This way new mail is easier to find.
- Delete messages with attachments after you have saved them to your hard drive. They take up a lot of space on the server. Place items in separate e-mail folders as you would with paper items. Don’t use your Inbox or Sent Mail as catchall holding tanks.
- Stop promising people more than you know you can accomplish. Under promise and over deliver is a technique that is an instant time saver.
- Sort incoming e-mail by subject, key word, or author so you can process related mail together.
- Read items just once, and answer, delete or move them to project specific folders.
- Set up rules for your Inbox, that will automatically file, delete, highlight, forward or prioritise incoming and outgoing messages.
- Set a ‘5 or 10 minute ‘don’t send rule’ for most e-mail. Instead, save them in your ‘drafts’ folder-you’ll be surprised how given a five minute lapse you will be able to retract a poorly written message or reconsider your response to something important. Better to take a deep breath, go and get a coffee and wait. Delays will help you preserve relationships and demonstrate emotional maturity.
- Learn how to keep an address book to save e-mail addresses, automatically insert them into a new message and maintain groups of contacts.
- Use signatures to reply to frequently requested information. These will automatically respond to the sender with a prewritten message. They are often used for acknowledgements, brochures, price lists, directions, etc.
When you manage a volume of emails or calls, or are away from your desk, they often pile up. If there are many messages, priorities need to be established and to do so require organisation on your part, especially when there is limited time in which to reply. Determining in what order calls and emails should be returned is an important decision.
Suppose you had the following messages. What would be the priority of each one, and what action you would take to deal with them? You must complete this exercise in less than 5 minutes.
|The messages are:|
|Customer John Stanley called twice. He says it’s urgent.|
|Your friend Michelle emailed about free tickets for a concert tonight.|
|Your biggest client Richard Bliss called. He has some questions about his last delivery.|
|Customer Joyce Smith has an order to place.|
|Mike from accounting has a question about your expenses.|
|Ron called and emailed. Please confirm your report will be in by 10.30 tomorrow.|
|Jan Davies has a question regarding the office night out on Friday.|
|Jim Oates emailed you saying that he must speak with you ASAP. You have no record of him or his organisation.|