5 Ways to Tame the Email Beast

Last Updated Aug 23, 2010 2:19 PM EDT

Email is one of those things that was supposed to make our lives easier and has wound up consuming way too much time. It's even a bigger problem for remote teams, because popping your head over the cubicle like a meerkat isn't an option. How can you reduce the volume of email while increasing your team's productivity?

Stever Robbins is the "Get it Done Guy", and the author of the upcoming book, "The Get It Done Guy's 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More". He has some rather unconventional tips for taming the email beast. The trick then is to coach the people on your team to do the same:

    1. Check email at specific times of the day. Productivity experts agree unanimously that checking email every time the little bell rings is a waste of time. Choose specific blocks of time and focus on your email then. Stever recommends first thing in the morning, mid day and then end of your day.
    2. Handwrite a list of which emails you'll respond to and then respond appropriately. This may seem downright weird, but the thinking is sound: If you create a list of what you need to do, you can look at it carefully, prioritize what needs to be done and even combine several emails into one cogent response (which will reduce annoying email threads). The goal here is to slow down long enough to actually think about your communication instead of replying at the speed of light.
    3. Just ignore it. Really. Respond on your schedule and quit trying to make everyone else happy. You'll respond better and you'll be surprised how many of those burning fires are actually burning. Now, my caveat to this is, it's the kind of thing it's important to get the whole team to buy into, perhaps as part of your team communication charter at the beginning of the project. Simply declaring unilateral email avoidance can be traumatic.
    4. Turn spell-check off. This doesn't mean don't use spellcheck at all... but you'll be amazed how much quicker you can craft a coherent message if you're not having a Pavlovian reaction to every red squiggly line. Finish crafting your message and then run spellcheck on it to proof your work. Without the interruptions you'll have a clearer head.
    5. Summarize your message in the subject line. People are scanning your email to help them prioritize their responses, just like you do to their messages. Make it easy. If you're changing the time of the conference call, putting "conference call" in the subject line and then typing a message about the time change and new information is annoying. And for heaven's sake if there's new information don't just hit the "reply" button. There's no way someone can know if the new information is important or not.
      The hardest part about helping your team use email efficiently is probably modeling the behaviors and breaking your own bad habits. Once you start to establish a pattern that works, suggest others on your remote team do the same. Share best practices and consciously adopt those that work.

      You can finally get email to be a useful tool again.

      Hear the full interview with Stever Robbins here.
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