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Managing E-mail

Most personal productivity coaches agree that checking e-mail first thing in the morning or first thing when you get into your office is a dangerous habit because e-mail has a terrific way of taking your attention away from what should be your prime time to focus on more urgent or important responsibilities. Sure, these detours can be fun, interesting and may lead to some new projects and opportunities, which is why productivity and time management coaches advise clients to do e-mail work at a less crucial, less energetic time of the day. 

Mid-afternoon is a perfect time to process e-mail. It is a fairly easy and entertaining task that is ideal for the after lunch — the time our bodies would rather be taking a siesta, especially if you have had a glass of wine.

Microsoft reports that most people can process 100 e-mails per hour. So set aside an hour per day to handle your e-mail, more if you receive more than 100 e-mails per day. It is crucial for a business person to process e-mail three times a day: once mid-morning to be sure nothing urgent has come in overnight, once mid-afternoon for a longer, more complete processing session, and once at the end of the day, again to check that nothing has come up that needs immediate attention.

It is a great policy, if you can commit to it, to let your colleagues and clients know that you check your e-mail at certain times and will reply within a specific time frame. Don’t feel that you have to check and respond to each e-mail as it — ding! — arrives in the in-box. You will completely fragment your day and thwart progress on anything that requires focused attention, which is just about everything you need to get done. 

When you are working through your e-mail in-box, work from the top down. With e-mail especially, the most recent item can often make obsolete a few older e-mails, as the item gets passed around and commented on. Urgent items that are flagged (often with a red exclamation point) will be sent to the head of the line anyway.

When you are in e-mail processing mode, handle each e-mail immediately. If you can delete it, do it. Otherwise, if it is something that will take two minutes or less, respond or do the action, then file or delete the e-mail. If it is something you need to delegate, forward it to the proper person. If it is something that will take longer than two minutes, drag it to one of your active subfolders (Action, Reading, Someday/Maybe or Waiting For; see my column from March 20, 2010).

If you’ve created a solid filing system using folders in your e-mail program, it will be easy to search for an e-mail you need. You can search by subject, sender, key words or date. Every e-mail program is different, but the search function should bevisible and easy to use in all of them. 

Searching for a specific e-mail by subject is often the best way to find information you need fast — you may remember that Sally sent you the information in May 2009 but Sally also sent you 250 other e-mails that month, so checking by sender or date would be less efficient. So be sure when you initiate an e-mail to give it a specific subject. Also, when you are changing the subject in an e-mail chain, create a new e-mail rather than reply to an old one with an irrelevant heading. 

I have seen e-mail correspondence going on for weeks that have something generic like “Thanks” in the subject line but actually contain things like dates to calendar, meeting agendas and other important items that would be tough to find later because the subject was not specific.

Don’t forget the good old telephone. If an e-mail discussion seems to be getting lengthy, pick up the phone and have a telephone conversation or schedule a face-to-face meeting about the topic. E-mail is most effective when it is used for succinct queries and messages that are straightforward.