Email has become our nemesis.
Overflowing inboxes, lost mail, and cc: chains that never end have turned email into a major time suck. The average worker sends and receives 190 email messages per day, spending almost one-third of their workweek managing email. Some of us even have to carve out time just to triage email.
Ryan Kendrick, food blogger at slceats.com, puts it bluntly: "My email is a disaster." He's tried using folders to organize, but they don't work because they end up getting ignored or forgotten. Instead, he uses the read/unread method to prioritize. "If it's a priority, I mark it as unread until it's taken care of. I usually average about 30 unread emails that require some sort of action on my part." When it comes to personal email, "if I don't read and respond immediately, it goes away forever."
How did this happen to our beloved email?
"It was too successful," says Chris Savoie, group product manager at Workfront. "Letters, phone calls, wishful thinking, etc. all got wrapped into one form of communication that could instantaneously be sent and received without any context. What's the difference between email and a phone call? It takes work, patience, and timing to make a phone call. The same is true with a letter. But, it's not so with email. It's so easy that it made communicators lazy, and communication became so cheap that anyone could use it. Once that happened, it became a glut of communication, resulting in largely noise."
In fact, the email avalanche isn't just a time suck—it actually impacts our overall work productivity and execution. In a recent poll, ProjectTimes.com asked respondents to name the single greatest problem in project management today. The top responses? Two-thirds of respondents said miscommunication between team members and project managers (37%) and communicating with a growing list of stakeholders (29%). If you're relying on email to manage project communication, clearly there's a problem.
1. Limit the use of email.
Savoie says rather than trying to figure out how to fix the problem, start by not adding to it. "Limit access to ‘all company' distribution and ‘reply all.' Instead, provide time and resources to communication via other avenues: in person, chat or video conference, like Google Hangouts for impromptu face-to-face calls."
2. Be smart about time management.
Take immediate action on emails when possible, to keep the pile from looming larger. "I knock out any response that takes less than 1 to 2 minutes where my direct input is required immediately, then essentially backburner everything else," Savoie says. "A close friend spends hours agonizing over wording, tone, and content. Don't let email ruin your life!" If it's that complicated, perhaps email isn't the right channel to use.
3. Use the read/unread method to prioritize.
Along with Kendrick, ASU Alumni Association Digital Media Manager Matt Hodson uses this system to stay organized. "Emails that need attention get marked as unread," until he either responds or otherwise deals with the message.
4. Use email as a To-Do list.
Hodson uses of the "To-do" feature in Outlook for very important emails that are not urgent, but that "I know I will forget about later on down the line." Zach Freshman, CAD/CAM technician with Freshmans Inc. also uses the To-Do list method. "I've almost completely switched over to Google's Inbox. Everything that isn't junk stays in the inbox. The rest gets put in separate folders automatically by Google. Important emails have to go right on my to-do list or they get forgotten."
5. Separate spokes for different folks.
Just as you might restrict business networking to LinkedIn and personal networking to Facebook, use separate accounts for business and personal email. It's tempting to rely on Gmail for both, and that's fine, but create separate aliases (the part before the @gmail.com), so everything is not lumped all into one. For example, Savoie has five accounts, one each for work, memberships, spam-ish signups and marketing, a joint address for the whole family and one he's used for "super-rare private encounters, such as job interviews."
6. Use a single mail manager, app or desktop client.
Ok, so checking all of those accounts routinely sounds worse, right? It doesn't have to be. Savoie uses his phone to manage all of them, so "it really feels largely like one email app, split into several different contexts." IT specialist Hang Wong has consolidated all of his accounts from Yahoo, Google and work into one email client. "Just be careful not to send from the wrong account," he adds.
7. Find your style.
Are you a filer or a piler? For filers, Outlook's rules engine, folder structure, and Excel-style filter/sort functionality makes for a great filing experience. "Gmail, on the other hand, offers a brilliant search function (surprise, right?) that makes piling extremely easy," Savoie says. "So, an individual might prefer one or the other based on their natural tendency towards filing or piling." The important thing is to find the method that works best for your personality and style.
8. Be a good emailer.
Remember, others are fighting the same battle, so being more thoughtful in how you send emails can help everyone tame the beast. Leslie O'Flahavan with E-Write says, "People should write a clear, useful subject line. Doing so helps both sender and receiver know what needs to get done."
Savoie agrees. "Successful marketing is important," he says. "The subject line has to imply urgency, interest and action, and the content needs to be consistently valuable. If only one in 10 emails I get from you is useful, then I'm very unlikely to open your emails quickly."
9. Treat people like professional adults.
Some use carbon-copy as a threat (i.e. "I've copied the boss, so she knows I've asked you to work on this task. Choose your response carefully."). Savoie warns not to use email to cover your, um, backside. "If people don't feel like CYA is a critical business skill, then they will email less."
Savoie calls this "possibly the greatest email feature in existence." Be honest. Are you really going to read all of the marketing mail, newsletters, etc. that clog your inbox every week? Most of those probably contain an "Unsubscribe" link at the bottom. As long as you know who it's coming from (so that you don't inadvertently validate your address to a spammer), and you aren't using it, just unsubscribe already.
The Ideal Situation
The reality is that email isn't going anywhere soon. And honestly, despite these email productivity tips and your best efforts to tame the email beast, your problems may not be entirely solved by simply getting organized. In many cases, the problem is that email is suffering from an identity crisis because we've tried to make it something it's not—namely, a project management tool. Email is a communications medium, a worthy substitute for snail mail and faxing. It simply wasn't designed to manage work requests, project collaboration, and other PM functions. That being said, the ideal situation might just be combining the undeniable utility and power of email with other applications better suited to work management.
To learn more about you can make your communications more efficient and manage your team's work better, download our free whitepaper "Tame the Work Circus: Master the Lifecycle of Work to Eliminate Project Pandemonium" today!
About the Author
Marcus is a content strategist and producer who loves helping brands craft content that improves customers' lives, builds brand credibility, and demands to be shared. For the last 10 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront, where he oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content. When he's not producing content, he's consuming it, in the form of books, movies, and podcasts.Follow on Twitter More Content by Marcus Varner