by Carthage Buckley, Stress and Performance Coach
Email can be one of the most time consuming parts of your day. Email has become the default method of communication for business. There are so many advantages to email but, if email is not used correctly, it can actually be one of the biggest time wasters in your day. Like any tool, email is only as effective as the person who is using it. To use email effectively, you need to be have a clear set of rules which govern how you will use email. Each person will have their own rules, but there are some core rules which will work for anybody. When applied consistently, these rules will allow you to manage your email effectively.
Before I run through the rules which I apply to my email management; it is important to highlight what happens when you don’t have rules for managing your email. When you don’t have rules for managing your email, your email manages you. No matter what you are doing, when that alert goes off to tell you that you have new mail, you immediately switch to your email to check what it is. Of course, 99% of the time, it will not be important or a priority. You will have been distracted from your tasks with absolutely no benefit. This is made worse by the fact that it takes time to regain your concentration and get back on track with the task you were working on. Of course, the more often that alert goes off, the more often you will be distracted and the more time you waste.
Applying email rules to your life
The following email rules have helped me to improve my time management and stay focused on the tasks at hand. That way I can complete tasks to the highest standard, in the quickest time possible. This is what effectiveness is all about. Try the following email rules (which I have adapted from the Email Charter) to help you get more done:
Email rule 1: Close your email
I don’t mean that you should stop using email. I just mean that there is no need to have your email open most of the time. I have read so many experts tell us that we should turn off the notifications which tell you that you have new email.
However, I suggest you go one step further – if you are not working on your email, do not have it open. There is no need to have it open in the background and you won’t be getting any alerts. Instead, you can work on the task at hand; giving it your full attention.
Email rule 2: Have set times for checking your email
There are very few, if any, people who need to check their email very frequently. For most people, 4 times per day or less is more than sufficient. I know that Tim Ferris recommends far less frequently and that may well work for some people.
When you have set times for checking your email, you are able to deal with a number of emails in one go and get back to your work without having wasted too much time. Dealing with a number of similar tasks (e.g. dealing with emails) at the same time is far more effective than responding every time that a new email arrives.
Email rule 3: Unsubscribe from irrelevant email
We are all on email lists which communicate with us regularly. These often make up the bulk of the mail that we receive. If you are not reading these emails, unsubscribe from them and you will dramatically reduce the number of emails you see.
Note that you may also be receiving notification emails from systems that you have set up. For example, every time that somebody signed up to one of my email lists, I was receiving a notification email. This was adding up to approximately half of my daily emails. By turning off these notifications, I have a less cluttered inbox which is far easier to deal with.
Email rule 4: Remember the greatest benefit of email
The greatest benefit of email is that we can communicate with others, anywhere in the world, without both parties needing to be present at the same time. This means that I can send you a request for information today and you can reply to it when you get the time.
Too many people view email like they view the telephone i.e. they expect an immediate response. They then get impatient and send unnecessary follow up emails. If it is urgent, email is rarely the best option. When you use email, exercise some patience and then allow the other person plenty of time to respond. Where possible, send the email with plenty of time to spare.
Email rule 5: Have a ‘waiting’ folder
When I send an email for which I need a reply, I save a copy of that email to my ‘waiting’ folder. On a weekly basis, I will review my ‘waiting’ folder to see if there is anything which I need to follow up on. If there is, I will then send a follow up email or, if it has become urgent, I will make a telephone call.
A ‘waiting’ folder allows you to have patience because you know that you have a record of the request for information and, you have a system which will remind you to follow up should you need to do so.
Email rule 6: You do not need to rush
Just as you should not rush anybody whom you send an email to; you should not be rushed by those who have sent you an email. If they were in a rush, they really should have chosen a more appropriate method of communication.
I aim to reply to all email within 24 hours and that is generally the standard in email communication. I often reply quicker but 24 hours is a realistic timeframe.
Email rule 7: Get to the point
Be respectful of others and their time. Email is not meant for essays. Get to the point so that they can help you in the quickest timeframe. Generally, there should be only one point per email however, if you are seeking information, you may have a number of questions. In this instance, I find it best to number the questions so that the recipient can be clear about what I am looking for.
The clearer you are about what you want; the easier it is for the recipient to handle your email. You do not want to get into a lengthy exchange of emails trying to clarify what you are looking for. Take the necessary time to set your first email out correctly and you will find that it saves time for everybody.
Note: If you receive an email where the sender is not clear about what they are looking for, don’t waste time guessing; send them a reply asking them to clarify their request.
Email rule 8: Clarity, clarity, clarity
Building on the previous point, make clarity the focus of your email. The subject line should make it clear what can be expected from the body of the email. The first line should make it clear what you are looking for.
Email rule 9: Closed questions
Open questions are a fantastic tool in communication but they are not really suitable for email. When you ask an open question, you are inviting the other person to go off on a tangent. Email is all about getting specific answers and information. To do this, it is best to use closed questions which required a limited reply.
Not only does this save you time; it saves time for the recipient too as the more specific the question, the easier it is for them to answer.
Email rule 10: Only invite those necessary
One of the biggest killers of productivity is badly organised meetings. The biggest mistake with meetings is inviting people who do not need to be there. It adds unnecessary conversation and they are often not up to speed with the topic which causes problems.
The same goes for email. Do not CC people on emails if it is not necessary. When you do, it is even worse than inviting the wrong people to a meeting. You end up with an excessive amount of emails and it becomes impossible to follow the thread of the conversation.
Note: If you are CC’d on an email when you don’t feel you should be; send one reply asking to be removed. Of course, you should be polite about it but explain that you have nothing to add to conversation and do not need to be kept up to speed on the topic.
Email rule 11: Inform others
Most of your email is likely to come from the same few people. Tell them how you manage your email and what they can expect when they email you. Most people are only too happy to behave accordingly once they are clear about what is expected.
Most companies use this approach in customer service e.g. when they tell customers when they can expect a reply and how their query will be handled. As the customer knows when they can expect a reply and how there problem will be dealt with, they are happy to leave the situation in the company’s hands. The same approach can be applied to email. When people know how their email will be treated and when they can expect a response, they are happy to wait for you to get back to them.
Email rule 12: Send your email on vacation
If you are going on vacation or you are going to be away for an extended period, you don’t want to come back to an inbox full of email. It is more effective to have an out of office reply which informs the sender that you are away and that when you return you will be deleting all of your email. If their email is important, they can follow up with you upon your return.
This may seem rude at first but in reality it is highly effective. In many cases, they will find somebody else to deal with it while you are away. If it needs to be you who deals with it, most people are more than happy to take responsibility for their issue and contact you upon your return. This takes a great deal of pressure off of you.
Email rule 13: Don’t send the email
As already mentioned, most of our email communication is with the same small group of people. If this is the case, it is often easier to note any requests you have for these people on a list. You can arrange to meet them at least once a week and during that meeting, you can raise each of the issues that you have.
Where you only require information, there will often be no need for further communication; saving the need to send multiple emails. Where the other person needs to come back to you, you can follow up the meeting with one email which outlines everything that was agreed. These meetings, when organised properly, are usually far more effective. Another benefit is that these meetings help to build better relationships.
For more great productivity tips, check out Quick Fixes For Your Productivity.
Email is one of the greatest tools ever invented; if used correctly. If you are not using email correctly you are likely to be wasting a lot of valuable time. In addition, if the people who are sending you email are not doing so correctly, you are also likely to be suffering the consequences of their poor decisions. By taking responsibility for your email and adopting some simple email rules, you can easily regain control of your email and your day. This will allow you to spend your time on more important activities where you will reap greater rewards.
About the author
Carthage Buckley is a Stress and Performance Coach who helps entrepreneurs, management and driven professionals to identify and eliminate the sources of stress while developing and implementing strategies to realise their objectives and create a happy, healthy and successful life.
The principle philosophy of Carthage’s coaching is that the individual can shape their own world, rather than waiting for their world to shape them. Working from the inside out, it is perfectly possible for each person to create their own life, allowing them to fulfil their personal desires while living in harmony with the world around them.
Carthage has lived and worked in 5 countries and continues to work with clients all around the world, both in person and via the Internet.