Those who work with me a lot noticed that my response times to mail is very fast, and that I seem to never miss an Email. I do feel that the practices I adopted and developed for handling Email are worth getting to know, so here they are.
1. Keep the inbox empty
The biggest factor, and also the biggest goal of my system are keeping the inbox as empty as possible. The only items that should be there are mail items you are yet to respond to or deal-with. Anything else should be deleted or moved away. The biggest cause of mail loss is items that get old and forgotten because they are buried in a 100 emails.
2. Use mail folders
Many people have hundreds of emails a day and no one can read all of it. Letting it accumulate in your inbox and trying to find the relevant pieces between the background noise is a recipe for disaster. My solution is to use mail folders, and not skimp. Create a detailed tree with folders like “projects”, “content”, “pending requests”, “Personal”, “Group Mail”, “Performance” and so on, with the purpose of having enough folders so that NO piece of mail can’t fit one of them perfectly.
3. Use mail rules
Even with the proper folders, moving stuff around can take a long time, so use mail rules. If you’re new to your role, take a few weeks to get acquainted with the traffic, so you can figure out what’s important and what’s not, and then create a bunch of rules. Learn the mail-rule feature of outlook (or your other mail client) and fine tune your rules so that all the junk gets moved into folders. For example, in outlook, for each rule, you can specify an exception that says “only if sent directly to me”, and that’s an effective way to separate everything that was sent to a distribution list from real correspondence you’ve been a part of. Put aside ½ hour a month to go over the rules and fine tune them too, as your group membership and topics of interest may change (for example, maybe you want less filtering during the annual review process).
4. Store common replies
For most people, at least half our responses are virtually identical. We send the same links to people over and over, or copies of similar documents and procedures. You can save yourself a lot of time by storing common strings and reusing them (referred to as “canned response”). There are plenty of tools for that, and you can also use Outlook’s NOTES folder for that.
5. Reply intermediately
Often times, you receive a mail, but cannot answer right away. For example, you need to put in a link that you don’t remember, or need to find more details. In those cases, get in the practice of answering something like “Hi. I got your mail, but I need to find more information to give you a proper answer. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” This kind of response doesn’t take more than a few seconds to write (less if you have the text stored as noted in item 4 above), but it shows the sender that you care and are attentive to his needs. Then, even if you later can’t reply at all or forget, they would be less offended than if you never replied.
6. Direct your employees with your attention “settings”
If you are a manager, then you’re probably constantly bombarded by mail from your subordinates, CCing you on every other thing they want you to know. Naturally, most of that isn’t very relevant (not to mention the people who are just attention whores and CC you on *everything*). Instead of trying to deal, conduct a semi-annual meeting with your people, and direct them on the proper etiquette – what items to include you in, and what to keep to themselves. You might need to spend some time with yourself, trying to determine what you want vs. what you need (facing off efficiency vs. control).
7. Mark items for follow up
When you send out an item, outlook, and most other mail clients have the option of flagging items. When you send items to people who are bad responders, or on topics that might take a while to get a response on, flag them. Then, set yourself a weekly task of going over the flagged items to see which need to be “pinged” again.
8. Reply privately when unsure
Sometimes, we are part of a distribution list, where any member can/might reply to a certain message. Often times, we ignore these and let others reply, but that can lead to some DLs getting completely abandoned (if people see no one ever responds, they’ll look elsewhere for answers). The common reason for not answering (aside from time constraints) is being unsure of the info, but try to get used to answering the sender privately in such a case. You could say “I’m not sure about this, but in case no one else responds, I think the answer is ______”. This will be infinitely more helpful and efficient for you too rather than seeing the sender “resending” 3 more times due to no response.
9. Wash your inbox before washing your teeth
When you wake up in the morning, spend the first 10-15 minutes of the day cleaning out your inbox from your Smartphone (I find it hard to believe anybody doesn’t have one these days). The phone is a good way to sequentially view all the new items, and the work you can get done in those 10 minutes would take you an hour if you were in the office (because office-work is always interrupted by stuff, like phone calls, meetings, people stepping in to “just say hi”…). If your phone is not convenient enough to do this easily…get a better phone!
10. Use your phone when out
On a similar note, get yourself a phone you can actually type on, whether it be one with a physical keyboard (like a BlackBerry or the Motorola Droid Pro XT610) or one with a big-enough screen to comfortably type on (like the Nokia Lumia 9xx series or the Samsung Galaxy S series). Then, use the phone not only to read email, but also to answer the items that you can with a reasonable amount of time. A 10 minute line at the cafeteria can save you 30 minutes of mail-time when getting back to the office after lunch.