Are you swamped by a wall of emails every time you look at your laptop/Smart phone? Are you distracted by emails arriving every few minutes? Do you no longer ever feel in control or on top of things?

Email is a fantastic communication tool, but we have not yet learnt to use it properly. Here are twenty practical steps for taming email and bringing it back under control.

  1. As soon as you open up Email you are on other people’s agendas. Give yourself 10 minutes each day thinking about what your priorities are and what you want to achieve before you set yourself adrift on that sea of email.
  1. Email is not a real time form of communication. By all means send that instant response to your boss or key client, but don’t get in to the habit of responding instantly as people will quickly begin to expect it and your email traffic will increase.
  1. Turn off (or turn down) your email alerts. Your ability to do this will depend on your email platform, the device you are using and your network, but do you really need the distraction and temptation of being told each time an email arrives? There is practically nothing more important than avoiding distractions according to Daniel Goleman, possibly the World’s number One Leadership Thinker at the moment (Focus, The Hidden Driver of Success. 2013).
  1. Beware of blending personal & work emails. Technology has allowed us to work more flexibly and there are huge advantages to this. There is also a downside though. Every time we sit down to answer emails, we could be dealing with anything and everything from all aspects of both our work and home lives. This means switching rapidly between different subjects and different types of communication. It is increasingly easy to get the wrong tone for an email and even if we don’t, I wouldn’t underestimate how draining this is. We are paid for the output of our minds, but often are we operating well below our best because we are so tired?
  1. It is estimated that most people can reduce their email volume a third just by unsubscribing to the adverts trying to sell us things. We know how to find “Sainsbury”, or “Airport Parking” when we need it, do we really need an email once a week?
  1. Don’t take it in to the bedroom. Preferably don’t take it in to the lounge either! Most of us hugely underestimate the importance of sleep. We are paid for ability to think and take decisions and being properly rested plays a huge part in this. Leave the phone, the Ipad and the laptop downstairs & give yourself an uninterrupted night’s sleep.
  1. Think through your Out of Office message. What does your Out of Office message say and how do you want people to behave when you are away? Do you want them to leave the ball in your court so that you can respond to them (and several hundred others) immediately upon your return? Probably not, so politely, point them in other directions or ask them to re-contact you upon your return.
  1. Be sensible with filing. Folders are great, but be honest, do they really save you time? Often you end up having to choose where to file something between different files and then end up spending longer searching for it anyway! The search functions of most email platforms are good enough now to cut the use of folders down to an absolute minimum.
  1. Be clear on your reason for emailing. Is it quicker to pick up the phone? If it is complex or emotional, then it is probably better to pick up the phone or meet someone face to face.
  1. Keep it concise. Most people don’t respond well to long emails with lots of questions. Ideally, stick to one question per email. (If you need to send it rather than calling).
  1. Don’t accept being delegated to. Email tends to drive work to the harder working and away from the “teflon-types”. Be wary of others who ask for your opinion on things. Do they really value your input or are you doing their work for them?
  1. Be careful using a flag system or to do folders. – Both of these can sometimes be useful, but equally, sometimes it’s quicker just to get it done. If it takes less than a minute, just do it and get it off the radar.
  1. Set helpful folder rules. You will not read 90% of what you intend to read. Be ruthless. Set up a 7-day expiry for your “To Read” folder.
  1. Block out time in your diary for emails. Very few people do this and have full diaries, plus three, four or even five hours of emails to respond to every day! You will find that some times of day will be better than others. Remember Email is a particularly draining thing to do, because you have to recall facts, context and the big picture for a huge range of different topics in a short space of time, so avoid Email before big meetings.
  1. Set cc Rules. As far as I am concerned, if you are cc’d in on an email, it is for information only. If action is required, then your name should be in the “To” list. The more everyone works in the same way, the more you can filter those cc emails and read them at a later date, by filtering them straight in to a separate folder.
  1. Close down Internal email on a Friday afternoon, so people can still send email but it won’t be received until Monday morning. This needs to be by-passable easily in the event of an Emergency, but is worth thinking about. If people go home more on top of things on a Friday, they have a better weekend and come back in more refreshed on a Monday.
  1. Hold short how-to surgeries. Very few of us have had training on Email (or Word or Excel for that matter). Getting your IT people to come down on site at a set time each week to run short how to seminars can be a great investment. Staff can request specific topics and highlight issues throughout the week and the IT experts can cover them as the weeks go by.
  1. Publish company etiquette. And keep publishing it. Make sure everyone knows and uses the same rules. Simple things like the USE OF CAPITAL LETTERS IMPLIES SHOUTING! Or when to include someone in the circulation list and when to cc them in etc.
  1. As a Company, analyse everything you can! Don’t underestimate the psychological impact of having a significant volume of emails outstanding at any point. Track Volume of email, time spent on email, how often staff go in to email and at what times of the day (or constantly, every day?!) Small changes can produce significant gains in terms of productivity and the mental well being of your staff.
  1. The problem increasingly isn’t just Email. Messages are being sent by Messenger, through Social Media and via text message. Although text volumes are starting to fall, work texts are starting to rise. This poses two problems; firstly how do we keep track of so many channels and secondly, how do we integrate them for audit trail purposes? Although Email has its dangers, the more we are able to root work traffic through a single channel the better.


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