For most of us, email is a critical tool, shaping our days and defining the way we communicate with our most important colleagues and customers. And yet we may simply drift into our email habits, without thinking much about how we’re spending all that time and energy.
Because of its big impact on your work, and also because it soaks up so much of your time, it is worth thinking about how to make your email work flow as effective as possible. Here are some suggestions:
- Develop protocols. You and your colleagues can save time and aggravation if you agree on techniques and etiquette for shaping your email exchanges:
- Set time frames. Teamwork can flow more smoothly if everyone has the same idea about which messages must be answered immediately, and which responses can wait a bit. For example, if you are a team leader who likes to work in the evenings, does that mean that your team members need to stay up late at night to immediately answer your questions? If you agree on the etiquette in advance, you can get those projects off your “todo” list late on Friday without compelling your assistant to work all weekend.
- Use tags. You can signal the nature and importance of messages by agreeing on the meaning of tag words to be included on the subject lines. Define and consistently use tags like “fyi,’” “action needed,” “urgent” and “respond by (date).”
- Use subject lines. Beyond including tag words, make it a practice to squeeze summary information into the subject line of each message.
- Be brief. Particularly because your reader may be scrolling through mail on a phone, keep each message as short and easy to read as possible.
- Start with a summary. Many readers glance at the just the first paragraph or two, then move on to the next message. To be sure that readers are catching your key points, summarize them in a brief initial sentence.
- Outline points. Make it easy to read messages quickly by putting them into an outline format. Number your paragraphs if that might help your reader to quickly respond or ask questions.
- Limit “cc’s”. Don’t encourage a culture where it’s normal to send copies to long lists of colleagues, either to show off or to cover your backside. Limit copies to people who really need to know.
- Process in batches. Experts say the most effective way to process email is to work through your inbox at various designated times throughout the day. When you check for mail constantly, you interrupt more important tasks and waste time switching gears.
- Change your habits. There’s lots of evidence that you’ll make better use of your time if you don’t look at email every few minutes. But sometimes it’s not the messages themselves that break up your work time – it’s the way you’ve become addicted to constantly checking for new mail. Try this experiment: Schedule an hour to focus your attention on your most important goal. Do you find that your train of thought is interrupted by speculation about incoming email? If that itch to check mail gets in the way of achieving your objectives, it’s time to build new habits.
- Proofread. We all know that spellcheck and other features can “correct” spelling and grammar in strange ways, and so most of us don’t expect email messages to be perfect. But it is still vital that you proof your messages before you send them. Be sure that your points are clear and that you haven’t inadvertently said the opposite of what you mean. Also read for tone, recognizing that attempts at humor often fall flat in email.
- Have conversations. When messages are complicated or subtle, when privacy is vital, and when relationships are delicate, email may not work as well as face-to-face or telephone conversations. Some things are difficult to write in a few quick graphs. Avoid serial exchanges and messages that are just too long. When it is important, look for an opportunity to actually speak with that other person, then reconfirm the details in a succinct message.
Want to hear about productivity issues like this? Bev and her colleagues are available to provide coaching and create training sessions, workshops and retreats. Talk to Bev if you’re looking for ways to address topics related to your work life and other challenges and transitions. Meanwhile, read Bev’s Blog and check out her website at www.ClearWaysConsulting.com.
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