E-Mail – Free Yourself from Modern Day Slavery

E-Mail – Free Yourself from Modern Day Slavery

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As a communication tool, the greatest strength of e-mail is that it allows you to do things in your own time.

The greatest weakness of e-mail is that somewhere along the way, we have forgotten its greatest strength.

Did you know it takes on average 65 seconds to regain your focus after dealing with an e-mail?

Ask yourself:

  • How many e-mails do you deal with on an ad-hoc basis during the day?
  • How much time are you wasting?
  • How much of your life is this consuming?
  • How on earth did we survive without it?

We spend so much time on email these days, it is important to really understand what you can achieve with it.

Can you become an e-mail ninja? If so, you are well on the way to enjoying more freedom at work.

This idea is about helping you understand how far you can take e-mail. From the simple to the sublime, you can achieve unbelievable things as far as reducing time spent on emails is concerned. So – what can you do?

Let’s put email ninja expertise into 3 levels – Simple, Getting to Zero, and Zen Master.

Level 1. Simple things that will make a big impact on what you do.
The first level is almost common sense. But sometimes common sense can get lost in the mix, so there’s no harm in stating the obvious. Here are some tips that are tried and tested – and so simple you’ll think, “Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?” If you’re doing these already, read onwards to even greater mastery.

1 .Shut off auto-check
Either turn off your automatic notifications or email checking completely, or set it to something reasonable, like every hour or so. Or twice a day. Every e-mail is an interruption.

2. Pick off easy ones
If you can respond to an email in one or two lines – taking less than 2 minutes, and preferably less than 30 seconds – do it now.

3. Write less
Emails don’t need to be huge essays  – respond concisely  and keep it relevant.

4. Cheat
To help manage answers to frequent email queries, set up email templates. Templates let you store standard responses to common questions and requests, saving you from repeatedly drafting identical replies from scratch.

5. Be honest
If you know that you’re never going to respond to an email, get it out of sight and archive it. Trust your instincts, listen to them, and stop pretending you’ll ‘get around to it’.

6. Methodically go through them
Don’t make the mistake of only reading the most interesting emails. The others, ‘for later’, will only clog up your system. Get into the habit of methodically starting at one end of your inbox list and working through each one in turn. Even if you’re deleting or archiving them along the way.

7. Don’t use it for conversations
E-mail is a very weak tool for conversation. Without the capacity for tone of voice and body language, it can often be very difficult to convey a message properly. 

Jack: Would you like tea?

Jill: It’s only lunchtime.

Jack: Yes, but you might want tea with it.

Jill: I can’t eat two meals at once.

Jack: TEA! I mean a cup of TEA!

Jill: Well – why didn’t you say that in the first place?

Jack: I DID!

Jill: I mean, why didn’t you SAY it? You’re only sitting five feet away from me, after all..

Jack: OK. Next time, I’ll phone you.

Jill: Jack. We need to talk…

If it is going to take more than two e-mails – to say what you want, get a response, and reply to that – then for heaven’s sake, pick up the phone or see them face to face. You will save yourself an awful lot of time.

Level 2 – Getting to Inbox Zero. 
Inbox Zero is a concept first introduced by Merlin Mann, developed from David Allen’s book ‘Getting Things Done’. The basic concept is that every time you open your e-mail inbox, you should process it down to zero. 

Yes, zero! Not one single e-mail left in your inbox! It may sound difficult, but here are some things that you can do to reach Inbox Zero. When you implement them, your productivity will sky-rocket.

1. Do something important first
Some of the most productive people I know don’t read any e-mail until at least 10am. They always do their most important task of the day first – before they even open their inbox. 

If you want to make e-mail less important, and stop it ruling your life, then take control by making it of secondary importance.

Do something valuable first. That gets you off on the right foot for the day.

2. Minimise the number of folders
Why have 50 folders to file things away, when you can use your e-mail facilities to archive and search for e-mail, by subject, sender, recipient, date and content? The more choices that you have, the harder it is to make a decision. Don’t waste your time working out what to do with each e-mail, and manually filing each one away. 

If you have a modern e-mail system then ‘search’ should be much faster than retrieving from a folder, as you don’t have to remember where you put it. Storage is so cheap nowadays, you can have more than enough storage space for several decades’ worth of e-mail. Permanent deletion of e-mails is a thing of the past.

3. Convert each e-mail into an action
If you boil it right down, there is only a small number of things that you can do with each e-mail: Archive. Delegate. Respond Quickly. Defer. Do. You should need nothing else.

  • Archive – Your file of files. I call it ‘reversible binning’. If you have read an email and there is nothing to do, then archive it. You can search for it if you need it again.
  • Delegate – Forward it to someone else who can deal with it. Put a note in your task list if you need to follow up on it. Don’t leave it in the inbox.
  • Respond quickly – Answer it. Keep the ball moving. Get it out as fast as you can. If you don’t have enough information, ask a question. Just don’t leave it in the inbox.
  • Defer – Create a folder for  items to ‘do later.’ Move it out of your inbox.
  • Do – If you can do the task in less than a couple of minutes, just do it. Now! If it is an appointment, add it to your calendar. If it is a task, add it to a task list.

Did I mention that you should get it out of your inbox?

4. Use the ‘open-once’ rule
Don’t just ‘check’ e-mails. Process e-mails straight away and decide what to do with each one. Take action with every one. Do not touch an email more than once.

Make a decision right there and then – which “action” does this email go in? Archive it. Delegate it. Respond to it quickly. Defer it. Do it! Leave no e-mail in the inbox.

Process your inbox down to zero every time you open your e-mail.

5. Use a modern cloud-based e-mail system 
If you are using a legacy e-mail system that is not based in the cloud, you are not giving yourself the best chance of being efficient with your e-mail. I actually feel sorry for people using things like Microsoft Exchange and Outlook. I see using them as a form of self harm. 

Cloud-based e-mail systems like Gmail (which now lays claim to be the fastest e-mail tool in the world) are just so much easier, when you get used to them. They are also so much cheaper to buy and administer. For small businesses, they are free. Why on earth wouldn’t you use the lowest cost, most productive systems? Most people spend hours a day on e-mail. Using a traditional system is like a lorry driver using a horse and cart to move things around. It just makes no sense!

Every time your IT Manager, IT supplier , or other valiant defender of the status quo complains about the security of the cloud, then give him or her an electric shock every time you hear the phrase “Our Exchange Server is down again”. That’s about equivalent to the pain of the quality of life you lose to such relics. I am sure that would quickly change their mind…

7. Filter everything that is not important
Filter out everything repetitive and non-essential, or you’ll waste your time and struggle to reach Inbox Zero. Either turn off the option for unknown or non-essential sites to email you notifications, or create a filter in your e-mail system which allows them to automatically skip the inbox, and diverts them to a newsletter folder, or just archives them.

Only allow newsletters that add real, immediate value to what you are doing (like mine!) into your inbox. Maybe you do collect ‘points’ from the supermarket or use a certain airline, but do you really want to know about their offers on a daily basis? Like interfering but well-meaning next door neighbours, you don’t want them knocking on your door every day to see if you want to borrow a cup of sugar. You’ll find them when you need them.

8. Check Emails Twice a Day
Twice a day is the maximum number of times you should open your email inbox and check emails. Schedule it in if you like, but resist all other times. Most people don’t work in roles that require more than this, so over-checking is just inefficient.

9. Create an Autoresponder
If you are concerned that you might miss a vitally urgent email, consider creating an autoresponder that explains the situation, and gives senders an option for emergencies.

Greetings All,
Thank you for your e-mail.
Owing to high workload and deadlines, I am currently only responding to email twice daily, at 12 and 4pm.
If you require urgent help please call me on my mobile on 01234 56789
Thank you for understanding this move to greater effectiveness
All the best,
Jack

10. Go Bankrupt
If you have thousands of e-mails in your inbox, give yourself a fresh start. Move them all into a folder to deal with separately – and notice if you ever even touch them again. If you really want to feel liberated, archive them all. Consider it a form of e-mail bankruptcy. Start again…

Level 3 – Email for the Zen Master
If you have managed to cut down your e-mail viewing to twice a day, how can you take it further still? As entrepreneurs, we have the freedom to structure our lives in any way we wish, so think bigger and smarter about what you could possibly achieve.

At this level of e-mail mastery, it is all about cutting the noise right down, so that you can free yourself from e-mail altogether. Dare you be bold, and use this approach to only check your e-mail once or twice per week? How far could you improve your life if your attention to e-mail reached these levels?

This section is about eliminating all of the dross that might find its way into your inbox – before it even gets there; as well as managing expectations of whether or not you will even respond at all.

Obviously, Level 3 is aspirational, and you might think it only achievable for a few people. Usually, the ones running their business whilst sipping cocktails in the Caribbean. We can all learn from them. And, of course, we can also aspire to become like them. 

What can you get out of these masterly approaches? And how will it benefit your time?

1. Answer direct questions only
Manage expectations that you are not required to respond to an e-mail – especially if it asks nothing. If it might be construed as rude not to reply, set up a template acknowledgement, or add an extra note to your autoresponder e-mail:

If your e-mail does not contain a direct request or question, please don’t be offended if you do not receive a response. I prefer to keep correspondence to a minimum for both our sakes. Thank you for your understanding. Again, please feel free to call me on my mobile number if you need confirmation or require something else.

2. Learn from the stars
How do famous people cope, when they are so inundated with e-mails that it is impossible for them to reply to them all? What can you learn?

Can you go one step higher and manage expectations that you don’t have to respond at all? How would it be, if your autoresponder said something like this?

Thank you for your e-mail. Whilst I make every effort to respond personally to everyone who contacts me, it is sometimes impossible to deal with the high volume of e-mails I receive. Thank you for your understanding. Have a great day.

3. Go to war on CC, as FYI
There is nothing that annoys me more than constant carbon copying – CCing – of e-mails! Especially if it’s only FYI (For Your – or even worse, My – Information). It’s a symptom of people not taking responsibility for their actions – hoping that any decision can be corrected by liberally copying in everyone remotely involved in the process. I find it an extremely inefficient way of keeping people informed. It is just noise! And most people these days just ignore it.

So why do it? Why accept other people doing it to you?

I have always tackled the greatest offenders that fill my inbox directly, using either a simple “Please don’t copy me into these e-mails” or a face-to-face explanation of why I don’t want to be copied into e-mails.

It is much more efficient to have a once a week catch-up with someone, than to receive twenty CC’d e-mails per day detailing everything they’ve told people. If you see CCing as an invasion of your precious time, then you can begin to tackle the problem head on.

Ensure that people know your policy on being copied into emails. Or your expectations of them, when you copy them into e-mails.

There may be a place for CC-ing if it saves you sending an extra email requesting action from a third party. This only works if they know that you only CC for this reason. For example,  in an email to Jack, also CC’d to Jill:

‘… As to the rest, Jill will take care of that’

Obviously, this doesn’t work if Jill never reads CC’d emails…

If you want to ensure that people to read the e-mail, why not explain their action at the top before you start the e-mail?

‘Jack: A response to your last e-mail is below outlining which action you should concentrate your efforts on.

Jill: Please take care of the remaining items listed below for Jack’

Then the main e-mail content begins…

If it were up to me, I would have a global ban on cc and have the cc field removed altogether! The downsides far outweigh the advantages. It is just too easy to misuse, and it is human nature to opt for the path of least resistance.

If you hadn’t noticed, being the recipient of arbitrary CC-ing drives me nuts! I prefer to be free.

4. Foster independent decision making
Many of the e-mails we receive are concerned with minor decision making, or reaffirming minor decisions that have already been made. The simplest way to stop this happening is to give your staff freedom to make their own decisions, within a certain framework.

For instance, experiment with delegated powers: give your customer service reps the freedom to make their own decisions to keep your customers happy, up to value of £100. If that works, then move it up to £500. 

Rather than reviewing the results of this on an e-mail by e-mail basis, review a summary of everything that has happened, on a monthly basis. That gives you the benefit of being able to recognise patterns and fix problems, and also gives the customer an efficient and high value service. No longer will they have to wait on a decision from you when they have a problem.

The real benefit, however, is what you can do for your business with all that saved time.

So – how can you entrust your own people with more responsibility? How can you empower them to make minor decisions – and keep down the noise in your inbox?

5. Be one step ahead
E-mail correspondence can be like a table-tennis game – almost endless volleys back and forth. If you want to stop unnecessary email noise in your inbox, your e-mails need to get ahead of the game by anticipating the response they’ll get from recipients and offering solutions. The less you check your e-mails, the more important this becomes.

For example, instead of simply asking if there’s a problem, cover all eventualities and offer solutions:

Dear Jill
I think that there is a problem with a special delivery that we urgently need. Has it arrived yet? 
If not, can you please call Jack Smith on 01234 56789 or via e-mail at jack@smith.com (he has been copied in) and advise of the delivery date and tracking number.

Jack: If there are any issues with the delivery, please coordinate with Susan, reachable at 09876 54321, who has the authority to make decisions up to £500 on my behalf. In case of emergency, call me on my mobile, but I trust you both.
Thanks. 

This anticipates any follow-up questions, prevents two separate dialogues, and takes you out of the problem-solving equation. Get into the habit of pre-empting any potential queries or outcomes from any e-mail you send – by answering them in advance

6. Outsource what is left
If you have got to this point, then you probably have very little e-mail left to attend to!

Maybe you can get rid of your e-mail altogether. Why not get someone to deal with your e-mail for you? You could just speak to them on the phone once per week! The important thing about outsourcing is to apply all the improvements first – and then outsource. That way, you have much less for them to do. Efficiency all round!

E-mail is a great tool, but the real benefits have largely been lost. How can you use these ideas to free yourself from this modern day slavery and make yourself really productive?

How far can you take it? Can your Zen mastery bring you to an e-mail free Nirvana ?

Further Reading:

Getting Things Done by David Allen (Amazon Link UK, US)

The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris (Amazon Link UK, US)

Links
Inbox Zero You Tube Video
Google Apps for Business

If the above topic, or indeed any of my blogs are of interest to you, then contact me and let’s talk! Drop me an email at getintouch@marcwinn.com.

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  4. Peter Sheath says:

    Hi Mark
    This is fantastic, can I share it? I work with teams trying to get them to manage their time better and one of the main time consumers is email traffic. It’s astonishing the amount of emails most health care workers have to deal with in any one day. I read a book recently called thinking fast thinking slow by Daniel Kahneman. He talks extensively about neurological capacity and, in particular, how little we’ve got. Apparently, when they are functioning properly, our brains can deal with a specific amount of information in any one day. They deal with it by using oxygen and glucose rich blood as fuel but when this is depleted it switches to adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormones). Emails take up massive amounts of neurological energy, even just knowing an unopened one is in your inbox eats away at your neuro energy reserves. It’s no wonder that stress and stress related work absences are so predominant in health care professions.

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