I usually get a few dozen e-mail each day. On some days this can be over a hundred. But keeping my inbox empty is relatively simple compared to many people I know. Hundreds of messages a day are quickly becoming the norm.
How do you keep connected without having e-mail waste all your time?
Developing a system to efficiently handle your e-mail is a must, even if your current inbox doesn’t demand it. You’re forced to be efficient when facing a hundred e-mails a day. When your e-mail needs are moderate, it is easy to kill hours a day without even realizing it.
Have you done a timelog to see where your time is going? Unless you use some of the methods I’ll describe, you’re probably wasting a lot more time inside your inbox than you think.
Step One: Batch Your E-Mail
Batching means picking a specific time each day when you handle all of your e-mail. Turn off the alerts that tell you when new messages have arrived, and commit to only manage e-mail at that time. If your job requires constant communication, you may want to commit to 2-3 e-mail periods each day.
- It saves time. By plowing through your inbox in one go, you reduce the time lost switching from different thinking modes.
- It blows away procrastination. E-mail is the procrastinators crutch. It makes you feel busy so you won’t do the more important work waiting for you.
- It keeps you focused. E-mail can not only be a huge time waster, it can be a huge attention waster. Going back and forth between e-mail and work will destroy any working concentration you might have had.
Obstacles to Batching
If batching makes so much sense, why don’t people do it automatically? Here are some of the complaints I’ve heard and my suggestions for how to overcome them:
- “Sometimes you need a break.” I completely agree. If you need a break, take a real one, don’t just use e-mail as an excuse to procrastinate on more important work.
- “People expect me to respond immediately.” Tim Ferriss, in The 4-Hour Workweek, has a great solution here: Inform people when you will be answering e-mails and ask them to call you if there is an emergency that can’t wait. Most e-mails can wait a day.
- “I like to stay connected.” Do you actually want to stay connected, or do you just want the feeling of connection? I’d much rather get my work done quickly and focus on my time with other people than use e-mail to compensate for a lackluster social life.
- “E-Mail is addicting!” I completely understand. Try committing to your batching method for thirty days. If that doesn’t kick the habit, check here for other tips.
Step Two: Keep an Empty Inbox
When you do batch, answer all of your messages. At least 99.99% of your e-mails should be answered during your batch period. Occasionally you’ll get a message that needs a more in-depth response. Mark a note on your calendar or to-do list to follow-up when you have time.
Answering all of your e-mails immediately does two things:
- It forces you to be more thrifty with your time.
- It keeps communication up-to-date.
If you regularly have to delay responses, you probably aren’t writing efficiently. Can long-winded messages be shortened? Keeping e-mail messages prompt saves you writing time and saves the recipient reading time. I’m sure I’m not the only person who prefers a brief message to a novel.
Step Three: Write Efficiently
How you read isn’t nearly as critical as how you respond. Writing takes longer than reading messages, particularly if you need to carefully word a response. Here are some suggestions to cut down the time it takes you to reply to incoming messages:
- Get to the point early. If you need to get to know the person, volleying back a few e-mails is fine. But otherwise, don’t waste space on information that doesn’t matter.
- Use bullets. People don’t read e-mails, they scan. Bullets saves you time and make your e-mails more readable.
- Meaningful subjects. The word “Subject” seems to imply you need a noun to fill that slot. Often a verb or action phrase might be more effective. Instead of “Proposal” write “I need your opinion on this proposal”. Good subject lines save time writing in the body of your e-mail.
Efficiency can have it’s costs. When the results of an e-mail are especially important remember a few other communication rules of thumb:
- Avoid CC. If you have a request or need a favor, don’t CC. BCC if you have to, but it is best to send individual letters. Why? People are less likely to help if they feel others might help too. Make requests personal and they will receive more attention.
- Make cold-calls warm. Don’t be generic. If you’re trying to get to know someone or want to make a new contact, show that you’re interested and interesting. Point out a few commonalities between you and the other person. Get the rapport ball rolling.
Step Four: Go Beyond E-Mail
E-mail isn’t the only technological wonder (or curse). Cell phones, instant messaging, social networking sites, RSS, blogs and StumbleUpon all compete for your attention. Most of the suggestions I’ve offered here can be applied equally to other forms of digital communication. Be smart and you can keep them from consuming your time.