CEO Tips for Email Sanity

There are two groups of topics I cover — issues unique to CEOs and business owners, and topics more universal that I know many CEOs care deeply about.  This topic is the latter — Email Sanity.

I found the perfect resource for this hour-long interview:  Randy Dean, the “Totally Obsessed Time Management Guy” who has spent several years understanding the best — and worst — habits we have around email, and why it wastes so much of our time.
Randy says that there are two fundamental ways we mis-use email.  First, we have bad personal processes — such as re-reading the same email five times before deciding what to do about it.  Second, email encapsulates bad communications habits — we forward someone an email without explaining why we did it, or what we want them to do with it, and the time we “saved” by not telling them that is then lost when they either ask us to clarify, or they guess wrong and do the wrong thing.

(read the entire article)

Bad Personal Processes
First, stop checking email every time you hear the “bling” sound that tells you a new message has arrived.  You can only be productive if you preserve blocks of uninterrupted time for important tasks.  You destroy your productivity if you allow yourself to be interrupted constantly by checking email.  Stop it.  Instead, depending on how customer-centric or responsive you truly need to be, set a schedule of checking your email no more than once per 4 hours — or as frequently as once an hour if your job really requires it.

Indecision and Re-Work
When you read an email, decide then and there what to do with it.  (The average person re-reads each non-spam email message 2 to 7 times before deciding what to do about it — a phenomenal waste of time.)  Randy recommends this “Decision Tree”

  1. Is action Required? (If no, file or delete it.)  If yes:
  2. Can I do it in 3 minutes or less? If yes, do it, then file or delete the email
  3. Can I do it in 3 minutes or less? If no, put it on an action list (to-do list) or in an action file

Mixing Business and Pleasure
Stop jumbling your email types together.  Set up three separate email accounts:

  1. Business (for your work)
  2. Personal (for your real friends)
  3. Internet (for every web site that demands an email address to complete a transaction — this will get most of the spam)
Through mere luck, I’ve actually done this partly, and it’s been useful.  I am going to invest some time here to complete the separation.
Bad Communications Habits
‘Read My Mind’ Forwarding
If you’ve ever forwarded a long convoluted email chain to someone, and at the top you’ve added nothing more than “FYI” or “you should handle this” or something equally cryptic, then you’re perpetuating a truly bad habit.
Take the extra 30 seconds to specify what exactly the issue is, and what exactly you think the other person should know or do.  Better yet, follow Henry Evans’ advice in Winning with Accountability and include also when you want it done, and be sure the request has a clear visual of the outcome or is otherwise crystal clear.
Abdication by Forwarding
Sometimes a person won’t want to do a task, and so sends out an email to a workgroup saying “someone needs to do X”.  Nobody volunteers, and the task goes undone.  The fix is to establish a shared cultural understanding that the person who sent that email still owns the task until it is explicitly assigned to or picked up by another individual — sending the group email doesn’t absolve the sender of responsibility.
If you’re having a hard time finding a task owner, especially in a volunteer organization, then learn how to motivate and how to ask specific individuals for specific things.
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