Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

How Effective People Handle Email

If you’re like most people, you feel overwhelmed and frustrated by the amount of email you receive. You would rather spend time on high-impact projects instead of digging through your inbox.

But as we advance in our creative careers and add responsibility to our jobs, the amount of email (and texts, and calls, and meeting invites) we receive is likely only to increase. Getting on top of your communications—and staying ahead—requires subtle, yet important shifts in your mindset and strategies.

Mainly, those who feel overwhelmed by email usually work from the assumption that if someone sends them something, they absolutely must read it and respond. However, effective people tackle email differently. Here’s how:

They always add value.

Before you send a reply, ask yourself: are you responding just to reply, to show you’re paying attention, or just to say “thanks?” If so, you’re typically wasting time that could be spent producing something of value and only encouraging people to respond, thus adding more email to your inbox.

They prioritize replies.

Give yourself freedom to delete messages that don’t require a response and/or from strangers. If you don’t have the time to complete your essential job functions, answering miscellaneous emails needs to fall off your to-do list. This saves you time by avoiding typing up the reply and reclaiming the mental space it takes to think about how to respond to random messages where the appropriate answer is unclear.

They save articles and videos for later.

From a video to a podcast to a survey, effective people know that a quick run through your inbox can turn into an hour or more lost productivity if you start following email rabbit holes. Put a time limit on how long you can spend going through your email. (Many of my clients set an alarm.) Wait to watch videos, read that article, or do other learning until you have some time set aside for such activities by keeping a “to watch/read” later list or folder or by using a service like Pocket. When you are in your inbox, you should only be doing one thing: answering emails. 

They aim for a 24-hour turnaround.

If you reply within about 24 hours, you’re still being professional and many issues get sorted out without you. Recognize when the pressure to reply is real and required for things to get done, and when it is all in your head to “appear” responsive. Your career will be made on your ability to get things done, not your ability to answer emails immediately. 

They use standard responses.

Text expanders are tremendously useful tools that you can use to quickly reply to emails that need a simple standard response (some text expanders for OSX are available here, here, and here). Text expanders, which are simple to use and inexpensive, allow you to type a two- or three- letter abbreviation that will expand to phrases like “Thanks! All the best, Elizabeth” or “I’ll take a look at the material and get back to you soon. Regards, Elizabeth.” You can also have entire paragraphs of text show up for commonly needed responses. This can cut down answering time from minutes to seconds.

Your career will be made on your ability to get things done, not your ability to answer emails immediately. 

They make answering tough emails an item on their to-do list.

Most of us work best when focusing on a single task for 45 minutes at a time and taking a short break afterward. For those emails that really do need you to reply but require some extra time, make them into a to-do item for later in the day. That way, you can quickly clean out your inbox (focusing on a single task) and then later come back to the messages that need 20 minutes or more for a thoughtful reply (again, a single task).

When possible, they bypass email all together.

If you find that the response would end up being too long by email, pop over to someone’s desk for a face-to-face chat or give them a call. A five-minute conversation can straighten out an issue that could have led to an extended email debate that would have disrupted an entire day. Particularly when emotions, miscommunication, and/or complex coordination are involved, consider transferring the discussion from email to another mode of discourse.

How about you?

How do you keep yourself from feeling overwhelmed by input? 

More insights on: Email Strategy

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

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Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at www.ScheduleMakeover.com.
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