On eMail management strategies

mailimageLarge global teams, and email culture makes email volume a serious issue for many of us.

I am often asked how I manage my email.  A few years back, I responded to this query with an internal blog post that I’ve reworked to hopefully help a few of you with your 2013 goals.

It’s important to note that struggling with email is very common.   I wouldn’t even suggest that you are not alone, instead I would say you are the new normal if you find email management overwhelming/fatiguing/stressful/painful/etc.

First, lets talk about why to bother

Sure, you can fall behind and wallow, but I wouldn’t recommend that.  Fantastic email ability is a level cutter in some organizations.  Being able to “keep up” is a critical job skill. Being known as someone who is in control of email, is often important to helping others feel confident in your abilities.

My recommendation is to lean in and think of this as a skill building opportunity, that will help your career.

Next, lets talk about how to seize control

Now that you are convinced that you want to master email and not let it defeat you — what are some tips?

Here are my tips, but I am hopeful that others will comment on this thread and give some of their own.

  • I do not personally love the idea of rules and filters — I know people who find them helpful and if you are inclined, I encourage you to look into tools of automation to help you prioritize.
  • For me what works is the zero inbox concept — that is to say, that if I have read and/or taken action on an email (or if I don’t need to) then I remove it from my inbox.  This is critical to my strategy.  I do this with the following approach:
    • Have at least one folder for filing — probably best practice is only one, as it’s easier to search that way.  If you want to keep it, put it in this folder but get it out of your inbox.
    • Only touch an email once — if you can take action, delete, respond or file — immediately do so.  The goal is to get it out of the inbox
    • If there is an action item associated, try to use your calendar and tasks to schedule the follow up and/or action item due date.  This way you can track progress and the deliverable without forgetting but still get the email out of your inbox.
    • If at all possible scan and delete — do not spend too much time on any one email — especially if it is not tied to a priority.
    • If you are new, and things don’t make sense immediately — get a folder to file away stuff you don’t understand — don’t let it drag down your inbox, as most likely it’s not the most important thing anyway.
    • If you are not sure — ask — do not be someone who doesn’t respond b/c you don’t know what is being asked of you — save everyone time and acknowledge the email asking for more info.
  • Do not let the volume encourage procrastination — that just doubles down on the backlog — act or decide not to act.  Don’t get stuck in-between — you are not only building a skill in reading/scanning email, you are building decisiveness, which is important and powerful.
  • Whatever you do — if someone is talking to you — reply!  Do not be someone who does not reply —  it is bad for your brand for people to wonder if you are able to keep up with your email.

OK– that’s really all I have — the rest is just about doing.

How about you?  What tips can you share with your friends on this topic? How do you survive email and still get work done?

6 thoughts on “On eMail management strategies

  1. I’ve been given similar advice before and it’s great… When I was at Sun, I had 4000+ emails in my inbox. When I came to Oracle, I had this great plan of keeping my inbox below 100 messages… then it was 300 messages…. then I went out of town… then I had a busy project… now I have 6000 emails in my inbox. One problem I had is the use of local mail folders – I don’t have access to those when I’m not reading from my desktop. I solved that by creating a few “top-level” network folders that I can semi-sort into, then properly filing once I’m back at my desktop. So, the problem’s not getting worse – but, how do I get out of this hole?

    I’ve removed myself from many aliases, so the new email flow is relatively under control – but the backlog. Yikes.

    How do you get this back under control after a busy project or being out of town?

    I love the idea of only reading an email once – I’m going to try to put that into practice!


    1. Ah.. vacation strategies. My personal vacation strategy is highly optimized for iphone/ipad.

      I have a folder that I call A_vacation (A to put it on the top and easy to find) and I dump everything in that when I am on the road. Then I start fresh when I get back from vaca and if I seem to be missing something, I look into that folder. After a few days, I do a quick scan and throw most of it out as having worked itself out while I was gone. Key is to start new and work on backlog seperately — if you try to do both in parallel you will stay behind and it will suck the life out of you.

      thanks for the comment!

  2. I actually use filters and color codes to quickly identify email from key stakeholders and management. Newsletters, blog digests and the like are sent to my newsletter folder for reading during less critical times.

    Because I manage multiple projects, sub-folders are the only way for me to keep track of the many facets of my role. It only gets filed if I don’t need to act on it. I can still search my inbox and it shows. I cannot claim a zero Inbox, but close enough that it’s manageable.

    I completely agree with your comment regarding “reply if someone is talking to you!” Setting their expectations if I am not able to get to it right away goes a long way in maintaining my network. I prefer to be the “go to person” who if she doesn’t know, she’ll find out for you.

  3. I agree and personally employ the zero inbox strategy everyday for my personal gmail account. Keeping my social inbox in order became overwhelming, but then I got the Mailbox iPhone app. It lets you implement the fast processing component really, really easily. Often, I can have 50 messages and I’ll be down to zero within 3 minutes.

    While I try to do the same with my oracle mail, it’s just not nearly as easy without fast processing. Hopefully mailbox gets IMAP soon…

  4. I have a challenge with mobile, especially after Office Hours. I read the emails on my mobile but not able to answer them due to the small screen, not having all the info. How do you suggest to handle this?

    1. yes this is a huge challenge. I just use my inbox as a to-do list in this case knowing it will be waiting for me when I’m back at my keyboard.

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