A day does not go by I don’t hear someone complain abouthow much emailthey have to go through. This is a huge issue, as great things typically don’t happen out of work performed on your “InBox” — but it is a necessary evil, and quite frankly, most people haven’t got a clue how to use it effectively. Here are some basic tips to get you started…
1. Clear the Noise– there are a lot of emails we get on a regular basis – emails that are information only, that don’t translate into action items (e.g. massage, corporate announcements, team updates, etc). Learn to create folders in your email client, and create “rules” to automatically forward those “non critical”/informational only messages to the appropriate folder. The cleaner you keep that inbox from this “noise” the more focused an “inbox ninja” you can be..
2. Every Email Needs To Be Filed Immediately - when you touch an email, you want to make sure you minimize those touches. My rule is that you can slot each email into one of three categories.
(1)Delete It (2) File It (3) Action It (Now or Later).
If you don’t need to action the email, and you see no reason to retain it, than you take door number 1, and delete it. NOW.
If you don’t need to action it, but want to hold on to it, get it out of your inbox and file it appropriately. There are many ways of doing this – by project, by individual, by department, by subject area. Whatever works for you. Note: I personally think people spend too much time “filing” messages – if your email software supports “Tagging”, this is much better, because you can simply move all your “filed” messages into a common spot, and then by tagging it with appropriate “tags” (keywords), you can find those messages later via a keyword search. The issue with “filing” into a folder (that I have, and see others have as well), is deciding which folder to put it into when more than one applies. When you come back later, you often end up having to check “multiple” folders since you can’t necessarily recall “where you would have filed” that note. Bottom line – tagging or using your emails “full text search” capabilities is a far superior solution.
For email you need to action “later”, convert these to “to-do’s” or whatever feature your email client allows (for exampleLotus Notes 8 has a “Follow Up” feature which I like to use). look at the Notes8 Follow Up feature – you can flag messages for follow up and even set a due date, reminder alarm, and even a reminder email. Another option would be to use the Notes8 ToDo feature for the same thing. If you don’t like deleting an email, create a folder called Done and just move the emails that you have “dealt with” there, to minimize inbox clutter. Use SwiftFile (Making It Work Tip#9 Psychic Folders) so you can quickly zap messages into these folders….
3. Treat your Subject like a Headline – The headline in a newspaper does two things: It grabs your attention and informs you what the article is about so you can decide whether you want to read further. Email subject lines need to do the same thing. Use the subject line to inform the receiver of EXACTLY what the email is about in a few well-chosen words. You might include a call to action such as “Please respond: (or Action Required:) by 7 November”, and if your message is one of a regular series of mails, such as a weekly project report, include the date in the subject line too. Never leave a subject line blank!!
e.g Subject: Action Required…. (for emails that require action)
e.g.Subject: Action Required – Urgent: …(for emails that are especially time sensitive…can even flag the message as High Importance to make it appear RED in the inbox – don’t overuse this though! Remember what happened to Peter in “Peter and the Wolf”…
e.g Subject: FYI: for informational only
e.g. Subject: Announcement: for important announcements
4. Make one point per email – If you need to communicate about a number of things, consider sending multiple emails. It allows the recipient to prioritize/deal with each differently, especially if some require actions and others do not. Consider also skipping an email (or several emails) and phoning a person or seeing them in person (if possible) – especially if there may be more context required…trying to provide that context via email, normally doesn’t work very well…Here’s a great video called Why Email Causes Fights your entire team company should watch.
5. Use To and CC: and BCCProperly - Most people have no clue here. Only put people in the To Field that are directly affected and need to action and/or follow up activity resulting from the note. Use the BCC Field for everyone else. There is a misconception that BCC is used to “sneakily” include someone else on an email distribution, without anyone else knowing…that’s not really the purpose of it. It’s actually pretty silly — If you need to make someone aware of an email “on the down-low”, you can always re-forward your response as a second email and provide some context to the “event” so the recipient knows why you are forwarding this to them in the first place.
BCC is actually supposed to eliminate the problem with Reply All - which people love to use that is a leading cause to “email overload”. What you should be doing is to limit the use of CC and use BCC instead. Then in the body of your email, at the top, explicitly indicate the recipient list. Here you would indicate the folks this message was BCC’d to. That way if on a reply, someone really wants to copy someone else, it forces them to add those addresses manually.
So what about CC? Of course, use cc if it is appropriate (and expected) that all the recipients should be included in the pursuant message trail that will follow. In these cases, you can even indicate at the top of the message to“Please use Reply All on any responses to ensure everyone is included in the message thread”
Tip: BCC is also ideal for those personal/joke forwarding activity when you are forwarding to a bunch of friends, but don’t want to reveal everyone’s email addresses to “the world”….this is not just a good idea, it’s expected behaviour and shows respect for email address privacy.
6. Proof your work - Pay attention to the in-line or pre-send spell checking features available in your email client, and USE THEM. Also treat email as a formal communication exchange — this means iincluding a greeting (Hi, Hello, Hi There, etc.) and closing (Thanks In Advance, Best Regards, etc.) to provide the personal touch. And always reread your email to make sure it is clear before pounding on that send key…
7. Work your inbox like a pro; prioritize and action selectively - Whether it’s Notes 8 or Exchange’s “Recipient Icons” or reading those messages from “the boss” first, have a system and stick to it. This also means you should “minimize your inbox churn” – this might mean scanning your inbox for urgent follow ups, but maybe (take a breath now), leave some messages “unanswered” for a few hours…you’d be surprised how many of those “unimportant but always urgent” messages tend to take care of themselves! Don’t abuse this, but your value to your firm is probably NOT best served replying to every message at breakneck speeds.
8. Your email is not a filing cabinet -Email is a “transactional” tool – not your personal database for everything important that has happened since you joined your company. Use Links Instead Of Attachments to point to documents that might be sitting in a collaboration tool like Sharepoint or Lotus Connection — or even on a shared network drive. This not only helps to keep everyone’s email LEAN and MEAN, but also means you spend less time “archiving and pruning” your mail files, as most companies have quotas to keep email disk usage in check.
Tip: There is an added benefit in this approach; if that file gets updated, you can resend the link to everyone letting them know the file has been updated, and not have to keep sending updated copies….(renaming them v2 v3, etc)
9. Show respect and constraint - You can’t count on email to convey emotion or be effective in “sensitive” situations. Use email to convey facts, and drive activity from a “transactional” perspective. Every email should be clear in purpose, and devoid of emotional outburts…leave the “flaming” for the online forums when you’re standing up for yourIPhone as those Palm Pre fanboys approach….
10. Email less – I have cut down on the number of emails I send out by over 20% this year compared to last. How? A little bit of “old school” behaviour. Pick up that phone more often, walk over and talk to people that you can physically get to instead of using email – and use IM tools to respond to messages instead of adding to that message trail. My favourite trick? IM somone and say, “Hey, just got your note – got a sec, can we talk quickly, as I can answer this quickly for you.” or… “I just got your email…wondering when you might have a couple of minutes…I’ll come by and we can talk about it.”
Just like Twitter, that can be used for Good Or Evil, the same applies with Email. So be GOOD. Make your Mom Happy!
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