Our profession is graced with so many learned and knowledgeable experts on principles of law practice management, marketing, finance, ethics and technology. This column brings to our readers a different expert’s perspective in each issue of Law Practice. This issue, we offer to you the expert advice of Tracy C. Parks, principal and founder of Simplicated LLC, an organization devoted to helping individuals and organizations, including law firms, create and sustain a productive environment to manage their work and enjoy their lives.
Recently, a client of mine, CEO of a 300-plus organization, shared he had “solved his email problem.” I, of course, replied, “Tell me more.” He shared that during a 30-day trip abroad, he asked his administrative assistant to only allow “truly pertinent” email to flow his direction. Upon his return, more than 400 emails that did not move his way during the month remained in his inbox. He removed those from the inbox and placed them in a folder. Sixty days later, he had the time to review these messages, sorting them by sender. He noted there were one or two messages that contained information of pertinence, but none that truly had bearing on his work or the job at hand. Nothing had fallen through the cracks.
Nearly 2 billion email users worldwide send 294 billion emails daily—that’s 2.8 million per second. It’s fair to say everyone is sending and receiving their fair share—some more than others.
Let’s bring that closer to home. In my experience, the business professional (on average) will spend 2.5 to 3 hours each day processing email, and read or write 30,000 emails each year. Indeed, some of us feel buried alive.
I’m not suggesting that you ignore messages that come your way, and the majority of us don’t have the support of a top-notch assistant who can “gate-keep” our inbox. I am suggesting a few tips to help master email overload.
First and foremost, keep in mind that every message in your inbox reflects some other person’s priorities and request for your time, but not necessarily your priorities. If you are using the inbox as your task/priority list, you really are abdicating control to the initiators of email. Why not jump back in the driver’s seat.
EIGHT BEST PRACTICES FOR PROCESSING EMAIL:
- Start your day by checking your calendar and task list first; then dedicate the first 90 minutes of the day to your highest-priority work.
- Process email three to four times per day with the intention of doing one of four things:
- Filing the message for later reference
- Acting on the message if you can respond in two minutes or less
- Creating a next action for messages requiring more than a two-minute response
- Tossing the rest. Remember this approach as “file, act, toss,” and use it to process each and every incoming message.
- Stay organized. Email discipline requires an intuitive, manageable folder structure for filing messages, a dependable task system for managing tasks and priorities, and the ability to ruthlessly toss the unnecessary. If you lack any of the above, I unabashedly suggest you connect with a productivity coach.
- Leverage the power of whatever email program you use. Learn techniques that allow you to instantly convert emails to tasks, appointments or contacts; to color-code messages by sender; to filter high-noise, low-value email messages into a folder that will bypass your inbox and you can review later (think cc’s, newsletters, etc.). Consider viewing the video tutorial to learn more about these techniques at vimeo.com/35289232.
- Send email that is clear, concise and actionable. The quality of email you send has significant bearing on the quantity of email you receive. A long-winded monologue of text means your message is likely to be overlooked; the reader will miss the action or initiate another email back to ask for clarification. Craft an email using bullets, formatting and placing the “action” up front. If it takes more than three minutes to read the message you are about to send, streamline it.
- Send less email and you will receive less email. For every five emails you jettison into cyberspace, you will receive three responses—much like a boomerang. Statistically, if you eliminate one out of every five outgoing messages, you will experience a 10-percent reduction in incoming email volume. A little self-management is in order. Does everyone in your organization need to be included in the announcement that your leftover birthday cake is in the break room? How often do you default to replying to all? What about those “trivial” thank-you messages, jokes and daily words of wisdom?
- Strengthen the subject line, as it should be the headline of your communication and therefore summarize the content to follow. Studies indicate that if you start by creating a clear subject line, the body of your message will be more concise.
- Utilize the correct communication tool and avoid the default to email. Pick up the phone, walk down the hall or coordinate a conference call. Using email for a group discussion or in an attempt to reach consensus is a “time vampire.”
Email can be managed more effectively! Yes, it will require some self-management. Even a cultural shift in email is possible, and again, coaching, training and discussion within your team or organization is the starting point. The time you invest will pay for itself within weeks if not within a few days. The tips in this article are ones you can implement immediately, so choose one or two and integrate them.