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.