Audrey Thomas, otherwise known as “Organized Audrey,” gave attendees at a packed breakout session some hope that they could get a handle on the hundreds of e-mails they all receive each day by being disciplined and following a few best practices. Here are her tips, presented during the Financial & Insurance Conference Planners 2011 Education Forum, June 15–17, at The Grand Del Mar in San Diego.
1. Process e-mail in batches.
Do you go out to your mailbox and bring in one letter at a time? Of course not. Set aside 20- to 30-minute increments three to five times per day to close your door, send your phone directly to voice mail, and process the messages in your e-mail inbox. “Every single e-mail is a decision waiting to be made,” says productivity expert and consultant Audrey Thomas. Put this e-mail processing time on your Outlook calendar. That tells you it’s a priority.
2. Create effective folders.
That doesn’t mean create a lot of folders. Folders are for current projects only. Past projects should be archived, not put in active folders. Match the name of your e-mail folder to the name of any paper folders related to the same project. “Remember that filing is about retrieval,” Thomas says. “It’s not about storage.”
3. Learn the Outlook feature called “Rules.”
This allows you to designate a folder for incoming e-mails from a particular sender or with a particular subject line. Non-time-sensitive material—an association newsletter, for example—can be sent directly to a folder called “To Read,” and those are e-mails that never have to be cleared from your inbox. (The feature makes the name of the folder bold when new messages have been placed there, she notes.)
4. Just answer it.
If the action an e-mail is asking of you takes two minutes or less, do it right then. “This covers most e-mails,” Thomas points out.
5. Don’t settle for vague subject lines.
Point number one is that you should write detailed subject lines when you are sending e-mail. But Thomas suggests changing the subject lines of incoming e-mails if they are too vague—even if you don’t reply to that e-mail. Doing so can help you track the e-mail or quickly know the status of the request or task later.
6. Make time for the urgent e-mails.
Although she doesn’t think you should be labeling any e-mails urgent unless there’s some true urgency involved (keyboard on fire?), Thomas acknowledges that “urgent” e-mails are common. Set aside time before the end of the day specifically to respond to those messages.
7. Don’t check your e-mail for the first hour of every day.
Before you leave your office at the end of the day, look at your to-do list for the next day. Choose your toughest task, and when you come in the next morning, don’t check your e-mail for the first hour. Take that “power hour” and see what you can accomplish toward the tough task—the project that requires the most attention and focus.
8. Don’t fall down electronic rabbit holes.
You get notification that someone’s posted something to Facebook. You click. Suddenly half an hour has gone by. Resist.
9. Turn off the balloons and bleeps.
Ever experienced a toddler pulling on your pantleg until he or she gets your full attention? That’s how Thomas sees e-mail alert sounds and bubbles that appear when a new message comes in. “All of those things get a response from you in six seconds,” she says. “It’s one of the biggest ways e-mail controls you.” Be in control of e-mail. Turn them all off.
10. Aim for a single screenful.
It’s not realistic to have zero e-mails in your inbox, Thomas says. Instead, every Friday, aim to have less than one screenful of messages when you leave the office.
Finally, here’s Thomas’s Golden Rule of E-mail: “The more you send, the more you shall receive.”