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Managing Email

Q. I’ve been at my current job for almost a year now. I really enjoy it, but I am completely overwhelmed by emails. I can never seem to stay on top of them. Do you have any suggestions?

A. Unfortunately, this is a common problem in businesses, both large and small. For most of us, email is both a blessing and a curse. It makes asynchronous communications possible, which aids productivity. It acts as written documentation, and enables the busy entrepreneur to extend customer contact beyond normal business hours. It’s a wonderful tool. However, we have seen people completely overtaken by inboxes containing literally thousands of emails. How do you manage the constant flow of communications―here are a few tricks that will help you dig out from under this electronic pile:

Don’t treat email like instant messaging – Do you feel like one of Pavlov’s dogs—checking your email each time the notification chimes or appears on your screen? If you want fewer interruptions in your workday, start with your email. Turn off both visual and audible email notifications. Instead, get in the habit of checking your email four to six times daily. An email is not an instant message. Ask yourself, “If someone responded to me within an hour or two, would this be acceptable?” Most of us would say yes. If you need a faster answer, use text messaging or make a phone call.

Don’t use email when other formats are more appropriate – While a great communication tool, email is not always the best way to go. Use it to convey simple facts. For example, we will meet at 4:00 p.m. Emails are also useful for documenting information, such as we agree to the following next steps. Email is not appropriate for complicated communications; discussions that require the parties to go back and forth many times; or for interactions that involve emotions, difficult or controversial topics, or where there are strained relationships between parties. Handle these face-to-face whenever possible or by phone or Skype when proximity makes this impossible.

Practice the four “Ds” of paper management – Email is an electronic form of paper and the same rules apply. When an email appears, you can:

  • Do it – Act on the email immediately and then delete it.

  • Delegate it – Forward the email to the appropriate person. If necessary, move the original email to tasks and note a follow-up date.

  • Dump it – This is our personal favorite. Delete email, without opening if possible. Have a high standard for keeping emails―especially in your inbox. If it is important, but needs no action, use subdirectories to archive.

  • Delay it – Avoid this whenever possible. Handling emails multiple times will slow you down. It is better to act decisively. However, if you cannot manage the email using one of the first three “Ds,” move the email to your task list with a follow-up date to ensure that it does not get lost.

Decrease the number you receive – Often the best defense is a good offense. Discourage others from sending you non-business emails. Get off distribution lists that no longer apply. Unsubscribe from communications you never read. Create a separate email address that you use when purchasing items on the internet or when required to give an email address for something you want. Once a marketer has your email, you’re on their list—you’ll get emails regularly. Setting up a separate email that you use only when giving an address to a marketer can cut down on the spam in your primary email address.

Use filters and rules – Most email programs allow users to direct emails from specified senders or those with specific words in the subject line directly to subdirectories or the trash. Learn to use these timesaving features.

Email can be your best friend or a headache that gets bigger by the minute. These tested ideas will help you get your email under control.

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