Entrepreneurs are generally pretty busy people. In fact, who am I kidding? Nearly everyone is busy these days. Entrepreneurs are not.
How do you make time to manage the flood of emails you get everyday?
I operate with one very simple rule – I only work on the stuff that matters. And when I say stuff that matters, I mean really matters. What seems important in the heat of the moment can suddenly appear less important after a good night’s sleep. What seems urgent now sometimes becomes unnecessary and redundant if we pause and wait. What demands an instant response can suddenly be irrelevant after the following flurry of replies from others.
The first thing we need to do is understand what email is not intended to be. Email is NOT instant messaging. We have plenty of other tools to discuss things in real time. Even when it comes to using Time Doctor as one of the tools for my team’s task and work performance management, email is NOT where you are productive. For most people, it is not our job. It is a tool to support our job, nothing more. But many spend their time bogged down in their inbox as opposed to really performing their role.
Let’s look at my personal circumstances. I currently have 5 functioning and consistently busy email inboxes. 3 of the 5 would receive an average of over 100 emails per day. The other 2 are a little less. This does not include the messages I receive on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. All up, my estimate on a given day would be no less than 400-500 messages or emails – how does one person handle that? I am by no means an extreme case when it comes to volume.
The first approach I took was to engage one of my trusty Virtual Assistants to manage the inflow. Whilst successful, there was a problem. How much value was my VA adding and why was I paying for someone to manage a bunch of messages that in most cases, I hadn’t really asked for? Wouldn’t my VA’s time be better spent managing the correspondence that actually added value…?
A bit of a fire grew in my belly and I decided that once and for all, I was going to fix my email issues and free up valuable time (for me and my VA).
I needed some guidelines. I needed to be RUTHLESS!
I split the emails into 2 categories: SOLICITED and UNSOLICITED. Easy!
But what if there was something really cool in the unsolicited emails that I would miss? What if that next big opportunity was waiting there just for me? We checked this over a short period of time. We didn’t find anything. Nothing at all! Even the majority of the people introducing themselves to me were not seeking a genuine connection. They wanted to sell hard and fast and be gone. And nothing I was being sold was something I had actually asked them about anyway.
My first guideline – Goodbye unsolicited emails! They were sent straight to the trash and to this day, I am yet to feel a ramification of ignoring them.
Next we assessed my solicited emails. These are from people I know – people I work with, family and friends, suppliers, clients, staff etc. In this category, there was a myriad of types of emails. From the friendly informal messages from friends to invoices from suppliers to questions from colleagues and the many, many updates. Managing this was going to be tricky…
As a bit of a side note, I have a particular penchant for being polite in emails. I can’t stand emails that are direct or abrupt to the point of being rude. I cannot believe that someone is so busy that they can never say “Thanks” or show gratitude when they are emailing. Whilst managing the emails I was going to be left with in my solicited pile, I made a commitment to not sacrifice manners for expediency. Something else had to give way.
The first thing that gave way was every email that I was only a “CC” on. If I am only copied, I may read it and move on. No email reply required.
The next thing that gave way was every email where a colleague was asking me questions. I pick up the phone, deal with all the questions in one hit and get it done quickly. No email reply required.
The next thing that I implemented was a “no whinging” policy. I made it clear in team meetings and in general conversations that any emails I received with complaints without solution options would not be engaged with. I was not going to deal with unqualified whinging at any level. No email reply required (you would be surprised how much of your inbox is full of whinging)
After removing the whinging, I then addressed the unnecessary “sucking up” emails. These are emails where people are telling you a whole lot of information you already know to garner favour. No email reply required.
This left me with a lot more time to manage the real emails I needed to reply to. And these emails are always (I hope) managed politely and positively.
I normally reply to a status report, usually to say thanks or steer the sender in the right direction. I reply to client queries and help them get what they need. I reply to staff ideas or genuine concerns. But wherever possible, I use instant chat (Skype, Lync etc) or the phone to manage things quickly and considerately. Family and friends get a reply of course.
My virtual assistant will take care of all incoming invoices which again has freed up my time.
Implementing the above guidelines allowed me to reduce the time spent on email. Taking a ruthless approach, as hard as it was for someone who felt horrible when an email was missed, was a breath of fresh air.