12 ways to stop email insanity

You’ll improve your efficiency and streamline communication with this nifty dozen tips.

I’m amazed that my clients, associates, and friends who complain about never having enough time in the day to complete their critical tasks don’t realize one of the biggest contributors to their time management issues: inefficient email use.

It’s my view that email is one of the business world’s biggest time-sucking culprits, not to mention one of the worst communications tools we have. In fact, I believe it should be branded as the best tool for miscommunication!

But there are things you can do, starting today, to lessen how much time email takes from your day. I realize you may respond to some of these recommendations with gasps, head-shaking, or disbelief. Good! If I don’t challenge some of your long-held misconceptions about email, it will keep preventing you from being efficient.

1. Turn off your new email arrival notice. The human brain takes time to recover from interruptions, and regain one’s focus. And yet if you’re like most communications professionals, who hear a “ping” every time you get a new email, you’re asking to be interrupted multiple times per hour. How does this make sense?

2. Go a step further: Only check email every two hours. Many companies have embraced the idea of encouraging their employees to check email far less frequently. Why? Because they know it helps their staffers do what they should be doing: thinking, concentrating and focusing. (What a concept!)

3. Put up an outgoing message that says something to the effect of “I’m concentrating on delivering results, so I won’t see your email for approximately two hours. But if it’s important, I want you to reach me! So please call this number…” If it’s important, they’ll call!

4. If you must check email more frequently (and are you sure you really must?) don’t check it during your most productive times. If you do, you’re choosing to be inefficient.

5. Get out of the habit of answering all emails immediately. You’re only setting up or contributing to a cycle of expectation, where clients, bosses, and co-workers expect immediate answers, even when that’s not warranted or even beneficial. And after all, don’t you want to be known for sending thoughtful replies, rather than merely fast ones? Of course, it’s fine or even optimal to send a message acknowledging the importance of the email you received, and indicating you want to think about it, and possibly discuss it with your team, your boss, or your peers. Then suggest when you’ll respond with your well thought-out reply.

6. Use preview panes to look for emails from clients, or those marked with red flags. Then answer those and only those emails.

7. Remember that people reply to every email sent. So every time you send one, you’re likely to get a reply. To which you’ll want to reply. And then you’ll get another message in return. See the pattern? So before hitting send, consider whether it will actually save everyone time and frustration if you just let the other guy get the last word in. It probably will.

8. Don’t get swallowed up in group conversations. We’ve all experienced the “pile on” effect, where each group member feels compelled to add their two cents. Ultimately you have a series of time-wasting emails, with no decision made. When you sense this happening, it’s fine for you to send a group email saying, “I don’t think I’m adding value, so please take me off future interactions in this conversation.” Sure, you’ll have to manage your FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out,) but it will be worth it for the time you win back to get some real work done!

9. Differentiate To and CC. Get your group, division, or organization to agree to a methodology of email use. Reserve “To” only for those who must take action. Use CC for those whom you want to inform, but whose opinion isn’t required. This will discourage input from those on the CC list, which is what you want. Trust me, if a CC recipient feels compelled to share an opinion, they’ll do so. But it will become the exception, not the rule, and that will lead to greater efficiency for all.

10. Stop sending “thanks” and “OK” emails. Email inboxes across corporate America are cluttered with these unnecessary emails. Both are relatively meaningless. Stop sending the latter altogether. Replace the former with meaningful emails that explain why you appreciate what the person did. Better yet, call them or, if warranted, send them a handwritten note.

11. Manage your email box better. Approach your emails as you should approach your paperwork: Do, Delegate, Defer, or Delete. This will help you avoid swimming in a sea of emails that slows you down enormously when you really need to find an important one. The key is to take action on all emails using the four D’s above. Be disciplined and delete 90 percent of your emails after taking the appropriate action.

12. Accept that email is a terrible communications tool. Many experts believe that more than 90 percent of communications is driven by the nonverbals: body language, voice, eyes, facial expression, and the like. Yet none of these are shared when we employ email. Why use a communications tool that’s likely to miscommunicate your point? So the next time you go to send that email, stop. Walk down the hall, pick up the phone, or arrange a Skype video conference or a Google+ Hangout. You’ll thank me.

To fully benefit from these recommendations, you’ll need the cooperation of your team, your group, or perhaps your entire organization. Imagine that, a group actually taking action to improve its communications and enhance everyone’s efficiency.

Of course, if you’re in the client service business, you’ll need to alert them that you’re implementing these changes so you can concentrate more thoroughly on their business and their results, and how they can reach you if they have a time-critical need. I think you’ll be delighted by their response.

Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Communications Consulting, which helps public relations and communications agencies grow business, and enhance staff performance, communications, and leadership skills. It does so via consulting, training and coaching. You can find him on Twitter and at Ken’s Views. A version of this article originally appeared on Ken’s Views.

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