“It was the best of tools, it was the worst of tools, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”
My apologies to Charles Dickens but email has undoubtedly become a double-edged sword in today’s corporate world. It’s taken the concept of the humble memo from decades past and placed it firmly at the heart of our communications. And that’s the problem.
I’ve mentioned before how Project Managers working in a matrix managed environment are often under-empowered and therefore reliant on the relationships they’ve established. To be most effective this social skill requires the highest form of communication available, i.e. conversation, in person, that incorporates non-verbal elements in addition to language and intonation. Communication via email (or any text-based medium) provides only the language element. On a list of good ways to build solid relationships, face-to-face conversations would be at the top; email would languish somewhere near the bottom. While it may seem easier to stay parked in front of the monitor and manage the project from there, it’s likely to make the job harder and more frustrating.
Virtual teams and offshoring can make face-to-face conversations impossible, of course. Does that justify putting email at the forefront of your personal communication strategy? No – pick up the phone! It’s still a far more direct, nuanced way to communicate.
Not only is email far from being the most effective communication tool at your disposal, it’s also terrible at managing your workload. Email clients such as Outlook include task management functionality, it’s true, but this feature doesn’t resolve the fundamental issue. Managing your workload is a huge topic in its own right. If you haven’t read David Allen’s Getting Things Done then I highly recommend it. Particularly if you regularly suffer the pain of disorganisation despite having thrown all sorts of software at the problem in your quest to bring order to the daily chaos. One of the tenets of Allen’s methodology is that your ‘inbox’ must be able to receive items from email, phone calls, Post-It notes, magazines, brochures…whatever! So you can see how email is part of the process, not the tool to manage your working life on a daily basis.
So, now that we’ve established email is often utilised inappropriately, how should we be using it? Here are some simple rules, techniques and behaviours that’ll definitely have a positive effect.
Check your email 3 times a day
Set aside 30 minutes (or whatever’s appropriate for the average number of emails you receive) and clear your inbox before you get into your working day. Check it again in the middle of the day, around lunchtime. Lastly, reserve some time at the end of your day to clear the decks before you go home. Quick replies can be dashed off immediately. Larger tasks that’ll take more than a couple of minutes should be moved to your to-do list for categorisation and prioritisation.
Turn off reminders
If you’re habitually processing email as described above, you don’t need the distraction of seeing every single message arrive. Switching off this feature will help to break the habit of reading everything immediately and being a slave to your inbox. It’s also disconnecting if you’re already talking to someone and stop to check your email. If a colleague has taken the time to come over and speak to you, give them your full attention. You’ll be glad you did when it’s you who needs their attention and they return the professional courtesy.
Turn off preview
Subject lines are your guide for processing email. If you have a preview window open you’re more likely to read every email as you get to it instead of quickly sorting and scanning for the important or most relevant ones via the subject line.
Set up rules for sorting your email as it arrives
Use Outlook to process your email automatically. Set it up to route email to various folders. There are many ways to manage your email storage practically. Everyone will develop their own preferences but here are some folders you could create:
- The boss. This’ll contain priority email that you’ll want to read, and not to miss!
- Your team.
- Admin. Not all emails are created equal. This is usually low priority stuff that can wait.
- Peers. If you’re working on a programme with other Project Managers, this is another group you may want to segregate.
- Other high priority messages. E.g. suppliers.
- Copied messages. If you’re CC’d on an email it’s probably not critical that you look at it immediately, or at all. You can cut down on a lot of your email traffic by funnelling these into their own holding area.
- Junk. Not just for sales mailshots. Anything you consider junk can be routed here. Found yourself on a distribution list for something you don’t care about? Send those messages straight here.
- 5-week. Inboxes become clogged partly because many emails don’t have an associated action but you’re unsure about deleting it straight away. One solution is to keep those emails in a holding area for five weeks. After that time, if nothing else has come up, you can probably delete it with impunity.
Using mobile devices
Having your email on your Blackberry or iPhone is a convenience, not a reason to check it every five minutes. (That’s what Twitter and Facebook are for.) One of the scourges of modern meetings is the predilection for processing email and instant messaging while other people are talking. If someone is concentrating on their phone they’re not focussed on the meeting, and that’s just unprofessional. If you follow the 3-times-a-day rule then you won’t need to do this. If everyone followed it, we’d probably have shorter meetings.
Keep emails short
Try to keep paragraphs down to a few sentences. If you need to write more than three or four paragraphs you’re probably better off talking it through directly, either in person or on the phone. The more senior the recipient, the more important this rule becomes.
This doesn’t mean spending more time in the office instead of with your spouse. If you send out a large attachment expecting people to read it, you’re going to be disappointed. If your email has an attachment that someone’s asked for, that’s okay. Just keep in mind that people won’t be reading what you distribute unless they already have a clear incentive. If you must send out a 50-page document for use in a meeting, help people out by highlighting key information they should to be aware of or just send them the relevant pages. The easier you can make their busy lives, the more likely it is you’ll get the result you’re after. They’ll appreciate it, too.
Use subject lines effectively
Some companies encourage the use of standard labels but if they don’t, you can still specify them in the communication strategy for your project. Incorporating shorthand in the subject line makes email more transparent and easier to manage. Use whatever labels you feel are most appropriate but keep it simple and be consistent. Drive the adoption by example. Good ideas catch on. Here are a few suggestions:
- [AR] Action Required. E.g. “Please send me last week’s actuals.”
- [SR] Contains a status report.
- [INFO] There’s nothing in the message requiring action but it may contain relevant or useful content.
- [DNR] Do not respond. This is information only and you’re not expected to reply. Used wisely this can head off long email conversations that should have been short meetings.
- [EOM] End of message. There’s no body text in the email – everything is contained in the subject. E.g. “I’ll be leaving the office at 4pm today.”
When it comes to productivity, the ideas and suggestions in this post only scratch the surface. But if your days seem to revolve around your inbox, take control of your email and rediscover the benefits of building solid working relationships. It’s more rewarding in the long run and it may even boost your career.