Tuesday 27 January 2015

Managing Email

One of the issues that many of my clients wrestle with is the handling of email...

The problem

The problem is that email is a relatively new technology in organisations, and we have yet to learn and agree the best protocols for its use. People often report that it is a major disruptor of their planned work. It is particularly disruptive of important activities that are not (or not yet) urgent: such as thinking, planning, writing, reflecting - activities which are often difficult to dedicate time to, yet are those which often add most value to the individual and the organisation.

A culture arises in many organisations in which people expect instant responses to emails; or at least, it can feel that way. In reality, when we are unable to attend to emails (eg when making a presentation, or in a meeting) the organisation does not, in fact, grind to a halt. If we constantly interrupt our serious work to deal with emails, many of which are trivial, and many others of which could wait for several hours with no detrimental effect, then we are sabotaging our own productivity and effectiveness.

The solution

The solution is to refuse to collude with the ‘instant response’ culture, and to explain to those who need to know what your email protocols are, and why.

So here's an approach to try:

1 Decide how often in the day you need to attend to your emails (say, twice), and how long you will allocate to them. Don’t have open ended email slots (cf Parkinson’s Law).

2 Decide when in the day you will put these email slots. I recommend, if possible, not doing emails first thing in the day, as you risk getting sucked into urgent trivia. For example, get some serious work done first, then have an email slot just before lunch; and likewise in the afternoon. It is good if your email slots have 'hard' end times (eg meeting someone for lunch, collecting children from school) so that they don't over-run.

3 Communicate this strategy to those who need to know; particularly your boss and anyone who may (legitimately) need you urgently, and tell them how to reach in in such cases (eg by phone).

4 Use your email slot to clear your inbox, every time, using the process below (adapted from Getting Things Done by David Allen). 

5 Set up mail boxes that reflect the main roles of your work (and life): make your e-filing system work for you.

6 Review this strategy after a week or two, to check that it is working and fine tune it. Record the benefits (and communicate them to your boss if appropriate).  Stick to it.

7 You may sometimes need to do an emergency scan (eg if you have a quick gap between meetings) for urgent stuff: don’t use that as a substitute for this discipline.

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