4 Principles for Awesome Email Responsiveness

1024 576 David DeWolf

I’m a responsiveness junkie. Especially when it comes to email. I strive to answer every (professional) email within 24 hours and it drives me absolutely bonkers when I can’t. On the flip side, I get a bit annoyed when I don’t receive answers in a timely manner. I don’t hold others to the same standard I hold myself to (though some requests obviously deserve it), but is it really impossible to get back to me within a couple of days? If so, maybe you need to start managing your email, instead of letting it control you. I’m not suggesting that you should spend more time managing your email – that’s not management. To the contrary, I’m suggesting that you get smarter about your email and reduce the time you spend in your email. Studies indicate that the average person spends almost 30% of their professional lives reading and responding to email. (Yes, I said thirty percent.) If that’s really the case, then it’s no wonder it’s hard to be responsive.

Are you spending way too much time weeding through email to figure out what we need to respond to and too little time actually acting upon requests and responding? Here are four guiding principles for increasing the email you can process so that you can optimize your email responsiveness.

1. Stop context switching: keep your phone in your pocket.

One of the worst time sucks of all time is continual context switching. Every time you feel that buzz in your pocket, hear that ding, or see the ‘unread’ count and act upon it, you lose time. You leave what you’re doing at that moment and all of a sudden shift your mind to doing something else. There is overhead associated with getting your phone out or switching to your mail client. There’s even more associated with transitioning your thought process. While it seems like a quick check to see what just came in (just a glance at the author and the subject) won’t cost but a mere 5 seconds, you’d be surprised how quickly that can add up.

I get an average of 200 emails per day. If I were to spend 5 seconds reading each one as it came in, that would add up to 16 minutes of time used for nothing more than glancing at what has come in to my inbox.

Now, consider that many emails require our thought and action. How many background cycles do you lose by the distraction of the email that just came in but you didn’t act on? No matter how counterintuitive it seems, checking your email at predetermined intervals will allow you to be more efficient, and thus more effective and more responsive. One simple configuration can help you eliminate the waste of context switching from your email routine – turn off auto-notifications. If you simply stop tempting yourself to take a peek, you’re much less likely to take a peek.

2. Stop queuing: your inbox is not a to-do list.

Can you imagine how stupid you’d feel if you used your mailbox (yes, the one at the end of your driveway) as a to-do list? Every day you’d wander out to see what had arrived. You’d scan through the envelopes, throw away the ones you didn’t want, and then return the bills and other critical items to the mailbox so that you’d know to act on them later. When the mail arrived tomorrow, you’d repeat the process, this time scanning through both the old and the new envelopes, but, once again returning those that you wanted to act on later.

Not very efficient, is it? Your email inbox is no different. Email is a communication medium, not a task list. In fact, email inboxes make a very poor task list.

Make a habit of ‘processing’ your email. If a message requires a follow up, even if it’s just a reply, get it out of your inbox and onto a to-do list.

To help keep yourself disciplined, I highly recommend the “Inbox Zero” technique. Inbox Zero is an “ideal” that some people strive for. The idea is to literally keep your inbox empty. An empty inbox seems manageable, even as it starts to fill up. On the other hand, an inbox with hundreds or thousands of emails is daunting and something to run from. A simple technique for reaching Inbox Zero is to immediately take action on every email you read. Once you’ve consumed the email message, take one of the following actions:

  • If you never need it again (or didn’t in the first place), delete it.
  • If you can take action or respond within two minutes, do it now and then tag and archive it.
  • If you can delegate the action, do it now and then tag and archive it. Inform the author that the request is in process (many times simply copying them on the delegation will work).
  • Otherwise, schedule it for proper consumption and handling and then archive it. Again, it’s wise to notify the author that you’re aware of their request and that it’s scheduled for action.

If you do this faithfully, you will keep your inbox empty and your mind clear, and you’ll be more efficient and responsive at email than most folks. You will also be immediately responding to requests as opposed to getting caught up waiting for them to bubble up in your queue again.

3. Start batching: kill two birds with one stone.

If you’re not reading every message as it arrives and you’re processing rather than queueing emails you’ve taken a huge step forward, but there’s still more time to save. What is the best way to consume email? In batch. Batch processing your email allows you to take action on several messages simultaneously. By doing so you drastically reduce the time needed to process your inbox. I use a simple process to batch process my email. First, I separate my emails into separate batches (more on this later). Then, for each batch I complete the following routine, archiving those that I act on upon along the way:

  • Scan the batch to get a sense for what types of email are included. I simply peruse the authors and subjects.
  • If any strike me as junk or trash-worthy, I mass delete or flag them as spam.
  • Next, I flag newsletters, notifications, and similar as ‘regular updates’ that need to be reviewed.
  • Next, I flag documents and any other email whose intent is clearly to keep me up to date (cc) for later consumption.

What I’m left with are those emails that require individual action. These are typically only a fraction of the original batch. I now process the remainders. Whatever batch process works for you, schedule it and stick with it.

Scheduling time to periodically process email will help keep your auto-notifiers off and your phone in your pocket. It will also help you reduce processing time by creating efficiencies of scale. This process helps to quickly eliminate emails that don’t require responses from your inbox, reducing the amount of time it takes to get to and process those that do.

4. Start automating: let the machine work for you.

As you start batching your email consumption you will most likely begin to notice that there are certain predictable actions that you end up taking over and over again. Learn to let the computer do the monotonous work for you.

For example, every time someone emails me seeking a job, I have a canned response that I customize and send out. Creating the core email is automated. In addition, I used automation to batch my emails.

Take, for example, emails that I receive from social media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. I take very similar actions on these. By processing them together as a single batch, I’m able to significantly reduce my context switching (not only am I only reading email, I’m reading the same type of email) and act upon them very quickly.

There are many ways to automate your email processing. Filters are probably the most common, though I find them to be quite tedious (and verbose) and fairly poor at handling a dynamic and ever-changing inbox. I use a combination of Gmail’s multiple inboxes and a tool called SaneBox (more on SaneBox in a later post, but it’s really the horsepower behind my email system).

Whatever your tool of choice, look for ways to stop doing the same actions, writing the same emails, and doing the same things over and over again. Doing so will optimize your email efficiency and leave more time for communicating in a responsive manner.

Two final tips:

Don’t be afraid to unsubscribe and turn off automatic notifications. The more you can reduce the incoming emails, the more you can focus on those that really require action.

Stop organizing your email. It takes too much time. Tagging allows you to quickly mark emails with multiple topics that you may want to recall it from later on. It’s more efficient and much easier to find your email when you need it.

What other techniques do you use to optimize your email throughput?