Email Overload

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I was recently asked for a copy of this article which I originally wrote for the Ontario Association of School Business Officials magazine, “The Advocate” in the spring of 2008. I hope it helps! If you have other suggestions for managing your email, please leave them in the comments.

Email is quite possibly the biggest time-sucker of my day. I know I am not alone because there are thousands of articles like this one on how to deal with e-mail overload. I will attempt to condense the common wisdom on the topic and share a few personal strategies.
You are probably reading this because, like me, you receive hundreds of e-mails every day. When you “do the math” it means that you get one e-mail every four minutes. The trap I am most likely to fall into is that I start checking | my e-mail and, during that time, I receive five new ones. I then handle those and receive more. An entire morning can be spent checking e-mails. The following points have proven helpful in avoiding this trap:

1. Think of an e-mail as a “micro-meeting”

One of e-mail’s strengths is leveraging asynchronous communication, i.e., I can send an e-mail when it is | convenient for me and you can read it when it is convenient for you. This is a great advantage in education because | teachers are not available via e-mail during their lessons, and it is unlikely that others know when each teacher has a preparation period.
This may also be what keeps us from looking at e-mail as a kind of “micro-meeting.” Each e-mail is an agenda item on a meeting between the sender and the recipient. No one has a problem scheduling time for an in-person meeting so I wonder why We don’t schedule time to address our e-mails. E-mail gets out of control for some of us because we fail to schedule | time in our day to conduct these micro-meetings. As a result, we often end up using time in the evening or over the weekend to catch up, interfering with our personal lives and adding to Work stress. You may not know how much time you have to schedule but try starting with one minute per e-mail and go from there as you gain experience.
Draw a line in the sand. Make a note of the last e-mail in your inbox and resolve to not go past it. New e-mails will Wait until next time.

2. Never check e-mail in the morning

This strategy I owe to Julie Morgenstern and her book called Never Check Your Email in the Morning. Management consultant Ivy Lee recommended spending each morning doing the most important task to your business and working on it until it is finished. Charles Schwab, then CEO of Bethlehem Steel, found this advice so valuable he sent Lee a check for $25,000 and a letter in which he said this was one of the most profitable lessons he had ever been taught. Lee’s advice was given before the advent of e-mail, but it still holds true. E-mail first thing in the morning is a guaranteed time waster and invitation to procrastinate. Use the morning to get at least one important task done. This will focus your efforts and put e-mail into perspective.

3. Let your e-mail program work for you

How many times have you been asked the same question in e-mail? Keep an electronic document with canned responses to frequently asked questions so you can cut and paste answers as needed.
Do you need to flag important messages or automatically file other messages? Use the “Rules” feature of your e-mail program to automatically apply certain actions to e-mails that meet certain criteria. For example, all e-mails from edu.gov.on.ca can be highlighted for your attention or automatically moved to a folder of your choosing.
Use the “Forward” function to pass tasks and information to your staff. There are people who feel it is best to e-mail the person at the top, but this doesn’t mean that you, as a manager, must personally deal with it. When you forward the message to a staff member, move the message to a folder called “Follow-Up.” Pick a few items per week from this folder to check up on, or have your staff routinely copy you on their replies. If you have briefed your staff in advance, you could also reply to the message saying, “Thank you for your e-mail. One of my colleagues will get back to you shortly.” You can also BCC (Blind Copy) the staff member to whom you delegate this task.
Sort your messages in reverse chronological order. This means you will always be addressing the oldest issues first. I switch this sorting option often, chronological order for day to day so that I stay on top of emergencies, and reverse chronological order for those times I have set aside a block of time for catching up on e-mail.
Email can be a useful tool, but it must be used wisely. It is important to guard against e-mail overload which can hinder your professional success and steal time away from your personal life.

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