Email management can be a daunting task. Lots of systems, tools, and games promise to help your team get a handle on email. But there’s really a simple truth about managing email that most people overlook. And if you don’t acknowledge it, no email tip, trick, game, or technique is going to work for you.
Here it is: Email isn’t something to squeeze in around your real work. Email is real work, and it takes real, dedicated time. Read on to discover the best tips to manage email.
The ‘Skim and Skip’ Trap
Many people schedule their days heavily and somehow think that they’ll stay on top of email in the brief gaps between meetings and “real work.” Or they multitask by jumping between email and other work, frantically skimming every message as it lands in their inbox, living with the fear that constantly checking is the only way to stay on top of the endless deluge of email.
As their message count keeps spiraling, email bleeds into their personal time. They try to catch up in line at the grocery store, at the family dinner table or while watching TV.
People who treat email this way are caught in “skim and skip” mode. Because they don’t allow time to really deal with their email (I call this “processing”) in a more thoughtful way, they scan for messages that seem easy, exciting, or critical to deal with, leaving anything that seems more complicated until the elusive “later.” The problem is, “later” never comes.
Here’s how to empower your team to skillfully manage email in the most productive way.
Effective Email Management Requires a System
Working randomly, without an organized system for email management can cause your team members to miss critical messages or reply too hastily. Instead, the best way to manage email is by periodically reviewing email for any important, time-sensitive, or easy-to-dispatch items but in addition, carve out extended time daily to thoroughly process the inbox.
What to Know about Reviewing Email
Reviewing email is when you quickly check your inbox for any items that need immediate action. You want your team to minimize the amount of time they spend reviewing email. Here are some strategies:
How Often to Review Email
Ask your team members to think about how many times per day they really need to check their inboxes for messages that need immediate action (or make your own recommendations). The answer will depend on their jobs, but it’s probably less often than they currently review email. I’ve found that surprisingly, a handful of times per day works well for a lot of professionals.
What I tell my clients is that they should review their email as often as they feel is necessary—just do it in between other things, not during other things. Switching from important tasks to check the latest email is a profound waste of what I call “brainpower momentum”—the deeper focus we need to achieve to apply ourselves fully to our work. This can’t be realized in the few minutes we get between emails arriving.
Where to Review Email
One trick for email management that works well is to review email on a handheld device only. Because the device is so small, it’s only really only conducive to reviewing, and it’s less tempting to get derailed by email because typing responses and maneuvering through mailboxes and folders is frustrating on a small handheld device. When reviewing on a full-size computer screen and keyboard, on the other hand, it’s easy to lose hours reading, responding, and filing, even if the intention was “just a quick review.”
What to Know about Processing Email
Facing the fact that email is real work that takes real time means that there must be frequent, dedicated times to actually deal with email. This “processing time” means for those that require it, reading completely, being thoughtful about important messages, responding thoroughly in the moment when possible, or adding to a task list for later when messages require more than a few minutes of attention. Here are some strategies:
When to Process Email
It’s likely that your employees may feel it would look silly to block out time on their calendars for email. But if email is real work that requires real time, then you have to ask yourself, when is that time going to happen?
Here’s a good rule of thumb: take a guess as to how many “real” messages you get daily. I consider a “real” message one that is addressed specifically to you, and sent by a real person that is related to your work in some way, such as a colleague, a vendor, or a customer. Sometimes, a “real message” can also include a message sent from a mailing list. These would be something you consider important and interesting, such as the monthly newsletter from your industry association, or the expert you trust to help you improve.
Once you have an estimate of how many of these you receive in a day, multiply that number by 2. This is because on average, it takes about two minutes to give most messages a thoughtful read, and make a decision about what to do with them (some combination of reply/delete/file).
Now you know about how much time email management needs to take in your days. For example, if you get 50 real messages, you need about one hundred minutes per day of email processing time. It’s also true that there will be days where you don’t have any time for processing, like during all-day meetings or training events. That means you’ll need to leave two hundred minutes the next day, or three hundred minutes the day after that.
Even on days when you have no time for email, they still keep coming! So you have to plan for that. (You should put an out-of-office message on your email when you’re going to be away for more than a day, to set expectations about when people will hear from you.)
Where to Process Email
When it comes time to process email, encourage your team to perform this task in a place that allows them to be focused and mindful. The goal is to get through the messages and they won’t be able to do that if they are getting interrupted and distracted. If they have an office door, they should close it and if that’s not enough, add a sign that reads “Please don’t interrupt until the door is open,” or something similar.
If they sit in an open space, they might put on headphones to signal to others they are occupied. Or maybe you could encourage them to head across the street to a coffee shop where they are less likely to be interrupted.
Work Offline While You Process Email
There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to clear an inbox while incoming messages keep piling up. It’s like trying to shovel a hole while someone stands across from you throwing the dirt back in! Instead, during the time your employees set aside to process email, they should stop incoming messages by working in offline mode.
The Best Way to Manage Email: A Step-by-Step Process
The best way to get through email as efficiently as possible? Sort, sort, sort! A few quick clicks can eliminate a score of emails. Here is a step-by-step guide you can share with your team:
Step 1: Sort by Subject
First, if you don’t already use “organize by conversation,” start with a sort by subject. Entire conversations can be had under the same subject line, and you probably only need the most recent one to get all the information. You might be able to delete all but the most recent one and read it from the bottom up, freeing up some inbox space and, more importantly, time.
Step 2: Sort by From
Next sort is by “From.” This way, you can delete or quickly file ads, coupons, newsletters, and anything else that isn’t “real mail.”
Step 3: Sort Oldest to Most Recent
Third, I recommend putting the oldest at the top and working your way down. Although you might be itching to see your most recent emails, you might have something urgently demanding your attention from earlier in the day (or the week), and they’ve been waiting the longest to hear from you. You’ve probably cut the number of emails in your inbox in half, so you won’t have to wait long to read the newest ones anyway.
Step 4: Avoid Skim and Skip
Finally, avoid the “skim and skip” process I mentioned above. What good is specifically setting aside time to process your email if you’re still going to leave it for later? Some messages may look a bit daunting at first glance, but make a commitment to read it through. It might turn out to be easier than you think. And if it’s as complex as it looks, you’ll be glad you got a jump on it.
Email Management Requires Treating Email as Real Work
It might sound paradoxical but when you give your team members permission to treat email as real work, you’ll find that it takes less time and that it isn’t a constant source of stress and anxiety anymore.
Email management is part of a comprehensive workflow management system. I’ve trained thousands of employees around the world to use my called Empowered Productivity System for workflow management, in order to increase individual and organizational productivity.
If you’re interested in talking to me about how I can help your team manage their attention, handle email most efficiently, and create a workflow system, check out my training page and reach out. I welcome the opportunity to speak with you!