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Part 2 of 5: Manage Your Email Daily

This is part of the series entitled, The Four Skills Every Executive Needs to Practice

In Part 1, I outlined the why behind this series- we have tons of executives who lack the necessary skills needed to lead.  Grad school doesn't prepare them.  Mentors are usually hands off and infrequent.  

What's a rising executive to do?

Part 2 deals with the first skill and it has to do with email.  

The truth is that email is part of the noise that we all face in everyday life.  We face more noise today than ever before:

  • Email
  • Voicemail
  • Snailmail (remember that?)
  • TV watching
  • Web surfing
  • Social media
  • And much more...

Email above all is critical for executives.  The bad news is that it is also a problem.  Here's why:

a) Email is still the primary means for communicating to groups and individuals.

b) Most people have poor email routines, making email less effective than it should be.

c) Email is cheap and easy, thus flooding our inboxes with a deluge of both important and non-important bits of information.

There is a ton of great advice when it comes to email, some of which I'll provide at the end of this article.  Some productivity gurus will promote getting to "inbox zero" daily.  The problem with this is that it's probably unrealistic and might be unnecessary.  

The real problem is that most young executives deal with email in one of two ways:

  1. They deal with it all of the time, smattering their day with a habit of "checking".  This not only makes the day totally choppy but it creates an addiction to new mail.  
  2. They deal with it so infrequently that they miss critical pieces of information.

You might be thinking- "what's the big deal"?  "So I don't do email all that well... what's the problem with that?"

The thing is this: email represents us to those around us.  A real example- a colleague of mine missed an important email once, resulting in a missed meeting which was an important opportunity for the colleague.  

The other reason why email is so important is that people judge us based on our email habits.  Now, I'm not saying that you'll get a promotion based on how you handle email.  But, you might not get that promotion is you build a reputation for being disorganized and unresponsive.  Fair or unfair, folks judge us based on how we handle (or don't handle) email.

The following strategies are recommended in order to take a reasonable approach to email:

  1. Decide to tackle email only twice a day.  Once in the morning and another time later in the afternoon.  
  2. Get to zero once a week.  This may be part of your weekly review but be sure to get your inbox cleared out once a week.  Zero, none, nada.  I'm serious.
  3. Learn how to use email to your advantage.  Only send emails about one topic.  Be brief and to the point.  Avoid emailing groups unless you absolutely have to.
  4. Know when a phone call is better than an email.  If you need to say a lot, pick up the phone.  If you don't want something in writing, pick up the phone.  

Now that you have the four key strategies, here are some supplemental materials that might be helpful as you tackle email and get it under control:


Smart Ways to End Emails

Have you ever been frustrated because people don't get back to you in emails?  The problem, according to Robert Williams, might be in how you are finishing your emails.

For example, if you finish an email with "just let me know..." or "we should do something", you are less likely to get a response.  The reason: you are adding work to their task list and their brain just goes on freeze mode.

An alternative might be to give them something very specific to do as a next step.  A-la GTD and "what's the next action", an effective email might wrap up with any of the following:

  • I suggest we meet on Friday at 10am in the conference room.  Can you do that?
  • I'll call you in two days to follow up.  
  • Can you let me know about item #5 and if that is agreeable to you?

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Pay attention to your emails.  If people aren't getting back to you, there may be a reason and a slight tweak could make a big difference.  


How to Write Emails that Get Opened

You've done it.  Me too.  You send an email and put a lot of thought into its content and then you wait.

And wait. 

And wait... until the person on the other end responds.  

The longer you wait, the more you get frustrated.  The more you get frustrated, the weaker your relationship with the person on the other end.   

Email, once a way for people to draw closer together, has become a ubiquitous mode of communication. Everyone with a smartphone gets their email on the go and everyone I know has at least two email addresses.

We did a survey a few years ago at work which confirmed what we had thought- everyone is checking email but few are using it productively. 

The Problem with Email 

How many emails are in your inbox right now?  If it's more than one screen worth, there may be a problem.  My garage is like that- there is too much stuff in it and as a result, I not only don't want to go in there but I've forgotten what's in the back corners.  I'm not stewarding it very well which is my bad.

  • Once email populates in your inbox beyond what you can handle, it's like that messy garage and you'll probably avoid it.  
  • Additionally, too much email conditions us to think that a messy inbox (like a messy garage) is the norm.  It doesn't have to be. 
  • Finally, email can be a problem when people check it sporadically.  Imagine if you called someone on the phone and they only picked it up every other day?  Or only once a week?  That's how many people tackle email. 

How to Write Emails that Get Opened 

So how do you write emails that get opened?  I learned a key lesson in this from one of our basketball coaches.  As someone who runs a successful business when he's not coaching, he gets flooded with hundreds of emails per day.  This guy knows how to cut through the crowd and get an email read!   

His ninja trick is this: in the header line, he will write "Conference call this week / IMPORTANT".  The use of IMPORTANT really makes a difference in the subject line without being annoying.  I always open the email and I've started doing it myself.  Not for every email but for the ones that are super important and must get read.  

One way not to get an email opened is to require a "read receipt".  I find these very annoying and don't recommend them.   

Want an additional trick for getting an email opened?  Be brief and stick to just one topic.  Like a neighbor who lives in the house next door, if she talks for half an hour every time you see her, you might start to avoid her altogether. People will start to do this with your email if you are long-winded or cover multiple topics in each email.  

Email is here to stay.  It's imperfect, to be sure, but with the tricks outlined above, you'll be more likely to get certain emails opened and get your most important work done.  

What tips do you have for getting more emails opened?

Photo courtesy of FDP

The New Language: Email
Email has become more than a means of communication.  It's a language unto itself.

Some people's emailese features a bad accent and others have trouble keeping up with the latest terms and phrases.  One thing that it does have in common with a spoken language is the need for participants to keep practicing it every day.

How often do you get down to a zero inbox?  Kelly from the David Allen Company shares here tips.