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Make email work for you, instead of the other way around

Coach's Corner--August 10, 2009

The Client
Name: Lisa
Age: 52
Title: Manager, IT administration
Industry: Financial services
Issue: Easing the burden of email
Q. My e-mail inbox gets more loaded every day, and staying on top of it is keeping me from getting other things done. I feel like it’s running my life — what can I do?

A. Turn e-mail into a useful tool with the priority it deserves, rather than letting it be your master.

The inner game
You can have a healthy relationship with e-mail. For you, what would that look like? Imagine the practical aspects — the volume, sources, and purposes — as well as the emotional side if e-mail were not a source of stress.

Compare this to your current situation. Analyze the e-mails you receive using categories such as Action Items, Info Only, Recreational, and Junk. Out of every 100 you receive, how many are really needed? Consider how you responded to the essential e-mails. Did you respond appropriately, treat some as more urgent than they really were, or neglect anything important?

Notice how you use your e-mail program. If you aren’t using alerts and other features to organize and prioritize, learn more and start using them.

Now, the moment of truth: how often do you check your e-mail? Morning, noon and night, or minute by minute? If you’re constantly monitoring your inbox, it’s time to take stock. Track how you use your time for a few days. Notice how often you check, the effect on your productivity, and the reasons you go to e-mail — is it truly the press of business, or are you stuck or bored?

The outer game
Start by cleaning up your inbox. If it’s overwhelming, take some deep breaths; if it helps, listen to music to get you going. Set a time limit, enough to make progress but not enough to be overwhelming. Sorting can help: by sender to delete big sections (especially junk mail), by subject to help you organize e-mails by topic, and by date to find ancient e-mails still cluttering your inbox.

Get your e-mail system organized, using the same approach that you use for your desk. For example, if you file paper by project, have project folders for your e-mail. If you keep “people” files, then have “people” folders. The only rule is that it makes sense to you.

To keep the buildup from recurring, cancel mailing lists or set up filters to move e-mails automatically into folders. Encourage your team to copy you only when needed. Challenge the use of e-mail in situations where a phone call would work better, leading by example.

To manage your time, triage your mail and respond immediately only to truly urgent e-mails. Set aside time each day to address the rest. Talk to your boss, your team and your colleagues to set expectations for e-mail response time, and then stick with it.

If you’re using e-mail for distraction when you’re bogged down on a project, get away from your desk for a moment. Stretch, take a few deep breaths, or have a drink of water instead. Then go back to work. Eventually, you’ll gain a new, more productive habit.

The last word
Readers, it’s your chance to help out! What have you done to beat the e-mail beast? Send in your tips, and we’ll share the best ones in a future column.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted August 10, 2009
Do you have a question or an idea for a future discussion? Submit it here.

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