Like many people, I get way too much email. You probably do, too. Until recently, I didn’t have a good system for dealing with my inbox volume, which was nearly 500 messages per day. That’s nearly one every waking minute!
I’ve tried in the past to use the “batching” technique and only check emails every so often, but I found that this just leads to email procrastination, while important messages go unanswered (for further thoughts on my attempts to prioritize email, read “The Urgent vs. Important Matrix”).
A CEO friend of mine emailed recently asking for my best tips for dealing with too much email, and below are the tips I shared with him. I continue to struggle with email overload, but here are a few things that have worked for me to lighten the load a bit.
Push as much to the phone as possible
I know this is counter-intutitive, but when you’re drowning in email, it helps. I train all my employees and folks I work with outside the company that if you can wait 1-2 days for a response or it’s just an FYI, email is OK. Anything more urgent than that should be communicated by phone.
This way, there’s nothing urgent in your inbox and you can put it aside to get work done. Urgent things interrupt you with a ringing phone and you can deal with them. You’ll also find that people tend to solve their own problems when they know that they’d have to speak to the boss live (oh the horror) instead of just dropping an email. This is probably my best hack for dealing with too much email.
Signup for an outsourced personal assistant service
Signup for Fancy Hands (referral link – gets you 50% off the first month) and use them to take care of all the time sucking “life” tasks that you don’t want to deal with – call Comcast to fix my bill, make a doctor appointment, order flowers and arrange for pickup on Valentines Day, check Yelp to find a good mechanic, etc. I just use their “Starter” package ($30/mo for 5 tasks), which is plenty of tasks and more than worth the money. They’ll also rollover any unused tasks.
The biggest thing here is to train yourself to think to use Fancy Hands before doing a task yourself (or simply not doing it). Never waste 45 minutes of your life on hold again.
Track all your open loops
Use task management software (I love Trello) to create 3 lists – “Today”, “Waiting on Me”, and “Waiting on Others”.
- “Waiting on Me” – this is the full list of stuff I have to do or handle before the project or task can move forward. Examples of tasks on this list might be “compile monthly financial statements”, “run payroll”, or “decide on supplier for new product”.
- “Waiting on Others” – anytime I send an email that requires a response, I create a card on the “Waiting on Others” list. That gets it off my mental plate, but prevents me from forgetting that I’m awaiting a response from someone else on that issue. Out of inbox, out of mind.
- “Today” – each night I review the “Waiting on Me” list and move the most pressing issues to the “Today” list. The next morning I wake up and know exactly what to do. Nothing else gets done until I knock off the “Today” list. The key is not to be too ambitious, so you can clear the list each day. Over several days, your “Waiting on Me” list should dwindle to zero.
Enable your out-of-office reply on vacation AND on weekends
…even if you’re going to respond anyway. This sets an expectation that you can later exceed (or not) if you choose. Important emails can still be responded to, but most people will expect to wait until your return for a response – and often solve the problem on their own before then.
Use a “Sent from my mobile” signature
I add “Sent from my mobile, please excuse my brevity” to the bottom of my cell phone email signature, and sometimes my desktop signature too. This gives you a social acceptable response to be brief, which lets you bang out responses faster and without feeling compelled to include “filler” language.
Above all, manage expectations
I find that handling email overload is as much about tempering expectations on the other end of the email as actually responding. You’ll find that if people think they’re not going to get an immediate response from you, they often try to solve their own problems and move the ball forward on their own – meaning you never have to reply at all. There’s nothing better than getting a second email that says “never mind, I figured it out”.
What are your tips for managing email?
Email overload is a problem we all have, so I’d love to hear from you – what are your best tips for handling email overload? Leave ’em in the comments section below – anyone that can improve upon my system wins a prize.