Q&A With Randy Dean, “The E-mail Sanity Expert”, and author of Taming the E-mail Beast: 45 Key Strategies for Better Managing Your E-mail Overload (and Regaining Your E-mail Sanity!)
So, Randy, can you tell me about what is going on in the e-mail spectrum right now? Why has e-mail become such a bane to productivity, when it should be a huge help?
E-mail started up with wonderful promise about 20 years ago. It greatly simplified and sped up interoffice communications – allowing people on the same “Intranet” to share simple text communications quickly and efficiently. Then, as computing and memory capacity greatly increased, and the Internet came on line, e-mail was able to allow for nearly instantaneous communications literally across the planet, now with documents, spreadsheets – even multimedia like audio and video – attached. It should be a boon for productivity, but several unanticipated things happened:
First, a new industry started – SPAM! Spammers realized that they could start selling products and services – some legitimate and some not – with great profitability. Dishonest profiteers quickly jumped in, and now it is estimated that 80% or more of global e-mails are now SPAM. This has literally flooded many private and corporate e-mail inboxes.
Second, individual users started realizing how quick and easy it was to use e-mail, so they started in many ways OVERUSING it:
- They began to overuse such functions as CC, Forward, and Reply All, and really increased the volume of e-mail running through many organizations – sometimes appropriately but many times unnecessarily.
- They also started using e-mail in places where other forms of communication might still work better – detailed and complication project plans; emotional and subjective personal communications; difficult and easily misunderstood communications – using e-mail in this way often creates more work than it stops, due to the expected “e-mail ping pong that ensues”.
- Also, people started realizing how easy it was to forward “jokes and junk”, and personal (and work!) accounts the world over started getting filled with the “joke of the day”. (By the way, a recent study estimated that the average American office worker now wastes more than 2 hours per work day on unproductive personal activities – I would bet a big part of that is reading “jokes and junk”.)
What are some of the key e-mail habits that you have seen that are causing a drop in productivity?
There are a number of bad e-mail habits floating around out there – it seems that because almost no one has had formal, strategic e-mail management training, people have learned “through osmosis”, or by watching what everyone else is doing – this has led to a number of bad habits:
- Re-reading “already read” e-mails – not identifying and acting on embedded tasks the first time through – I’m recommending that people make a decision on what they are going to do with an e-mail (act on it, complete it, task it, or procrastinate it) the very first time they read the message
- Leaving the “quick little ones” for later (e-mails that have a single quick task – usually a simple reply or action – these should be done RIGHT NOW – not saved for later)
- Blinging (checking your e-mail every time a new message comes in – called “blinging” due to that little sound Microsoft Outlook makes when a new message comes in)
- Overusing CC, forwarding, and reply all – as discussed above
- Using e-mail for communications where e-mail isn’t effective or efficient – as discussed above
- Personal use of people’s work e-mail accounts – doing too much personal e-mail with your work account – jokes, junk, pictures, family videos, etc.
There are many more too – these are just some of the most common
Speaking of “making a decision with each and every e-mail” – can you explain better what you mean by that? How does that help you manage your e-mail?
Simply this – if you are going to take the time to open and read an e-mail, then you should figure out what you plan to do with it. Are you going to complete the task? (I recommend all e-mails that have embedded tasks of three minutes or less should be done RIGHT NOW – I call this the “Three Minute, One Touch Rule”.) Are you going to save it for later? Or are you going to even consider procrastinating the task because it isn’t of high enough priority?
So many people open an e-mail, read it, think about it, but then don’t figure out what they’re going to do with it. Then, they come back to it later and go through this process all over again – sometimes 3, 4, 5 times! Talk about wasted time and productivity. You need a bias for action when administering your e-mail if you want to keep it under control.
This “three-minute, one touch rule” sounds fascinating – is this something that has applications beyond e-mail too?
Yes, this is perhaps one of the most useful time management/enhanced productivity techniques I’ve ever learned, and it is directly applicable to e-mail. To give fair credit, I learned this technique from David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, nearly 20 years ago. Basically, he said that if you look at any new input – voice mail, snail mail, e-mail, report to review, even unexpected interruptions – if you give your attention to it, and you determine it takes three minutes or less to get it done, GET IT DONE right now. Don’t stack it and save it for later – that is where the stacks and piles on your desk come from, and that is also where the overloaded e-mail inbox comes from too. Get the quick little things done RIGHT NOW. If something takes longer than three minutes, then either prioritize it into your written task list, or stack it into something called a “Priority File”, with the most important and/or urgent thing you have to do on top. This simple strategy really helps keep both your e-mail and your workspace efficient and clutter free.
You also mentioned “blinging” – what is that again? Why is it so bad? What should you do instead?
Blinging is my name for that little noise that Microsoft Outlook makes whenever a new message comes in. For some people, that noise seems to be as addictive as “crack” cocaine. The minute they hear it, they drop whatever they are doing and jump to their computer. This is of course a very bad habit for maintaining focus and productivity – every time you do this, you distract your focus and lose your place on what you were previously working on – thus losing productivity several times per day. A recent study even indicated that people who constantly check e-mails, take phone calls, and deal with unexpected interruptions suffer from a temporary IQ loss more than twice that of those who smoke marijuana! And this “blinging” behavior is pretty common – another study showed that more than 25% of people are checking their e-mail 20 or more times per day!
I’m recommending that people instead look at their work situation related to e-mail – how often do they really need to check their e-mail in order to be “appropriately responsive” to their clients, customers, and coworkers? And of course they have to balance this with what they have to get done – their key projects, tasks, and deliverables. If you are constantly checking e-mail, you’ll have a hard time getting anything done, but, on the other hand, if you never check your e-mail, you’ll probably get fired – you’ve got to find the right balance somewhere in the middle. Most people tell me they really need to be checking their e-mail every hour or two to properly balance their projects and being responsive – that translates to 4-5 times per work day, which is a great solution for most folks. Of course, some need to check more, some less, depending on where they are on the “project management vs. client service” spectrum.
What do you do with an e-mail when you are done with it? Do you recommend deleting it? Keeping it in your inbox? Filing it for later reference?
In my new book, I talk about a pretty simple decision matrix with your e-mails. As I mentioned above, the first time you read an e-mail, decide what you are going to do with it. If it is short and quick (three minutes or less), just get the embedded task done. If the task will be longer than three minutes, then either print it and put in your priority file, or put the task on your task list so you can get to it at the appropriate time (if at all!) Once you either get the task done, or get it on your task list or in your priority file, then you have one of two things you can do with it – A.) DELETE IT, or B.) file it. You want to file the messages you deem you need to keep in a folder that is not your inbox – if you keep them in your inbox, you might read them again even though you’ve already dealt with them. That is a pure waste of time! And if you do not have an appropriate folder to file your message, make one! In most e-mail software programs, you can make a new folder and file a message in a matter of a few seconds – don’t leave your “completed” messages in your inbox!
If you follow this simple decision matrix with each and every e-mail that comes in, you should actually be able to keep your inbox close to ZERO, which is not only a great way to keep your productivity maximized, but also allows you to greatly lower your e-mail stress!
Tell me about overusing CC’s. Seems like lots of professionals are very quick to hit “reply all”, or copy everyone in their department. Is that bad? Why?
It really depends on the situation surrounding the specific e-mail, but generally, people are WAY OVERUSING CC, forward, and reply all. It seems that many people are simply being “too inclusive” with sharing information. They seem to think that everybody wants and needs the information contained in every e-mail sent. The obvious problem with that – people get TOO MANY e-mails, and thus have a hard time determining what messages are important and which ones are “FYI only”. Some people even hide behind their CCs – they send messages with embedded tasks to their whole team, simply because the embedded task is something they don’t want to do themselves. Then, because the task was never assigned to a specific person, it doesn’t get done. Others religiously copy team members and bosses as a “CYA” maneuver, using e-mail for political cover. The result: too many CC’s clogging up too many inboxes in too many companies.
Here are my general CC solutions:
- Make a rule that you only CC or forward an e-mail if each and every recipient has a defined task or deliverable. If the recipient doesn’t have something to do after receiving the e-mail, there is a strong argument that they didn’t need to receive the e-mail anyway!
- Also, if someone sends out a single task to a large group of people without specifically naming who owns the task, then make it a rule that the e-mail SENDER owns the task since they didn’t define appropriate responsibility.
- And, if you are using e-mail for political cover, couldn’t you simply save your sent and received e-mails for evidence (recalling them when needed), rather than copying everybody all the time showing them who sent what when?
Following these simple tips could GREATLY decrease unnecessary usage of CC, forward, and reply all.
We haven’t mentioned SPAM and junk yet? Any strategies for getting that under control? How can you avoid the negative effects of SPAM?
- Of course, encourage your IT staff at your company to install and monitor an appropriate SPAM filter at work – this will knock out 95%+ of the junk that tries to find you.
- Also, immediately delete any messages from people you don’t know with suspicious attachments – NEVER open the attachment!
- NEVER enter data into an e-mail, and don’t click links on suspicious e-mails.
- Finally, I actually encourage people to create a new e-mail account for all of their e-commerce activities – shopping online, social networking, etc. Then, give that e-mail address out rather than your work address, because a big amount of the e-mail you’ll receive when you give out your e-mail address online is junk or SPAM. If you keep your work account hidden like an unlisted phone number, it makes it that much harder for Spammers to find you!
Any final quick little e-mail tricks you’d like to share?
Yes, a few:
- If you get a suspicious SPAM message in your MS Outlook, LotusNotes, and/or GroupWise on your PC, select the message with a single left click (don’t double click it – that opens it!), then hold down the “Shift” key, and hit “Delete”. This acts as a manual SPAM filter – the message doesn’t even go into your “Deleted Items” folder – IT IS GONE!! (Sorry Mac users – this only works on a PC!)
- When you will be out of town on vacation and you set up your “Out of Office” autoreply, do a little white lie and tell people you’ll be back in the office 1-2 days after you actually get back (tell your boss the real day you’ll be back!). This buys you a little time to get caught up before people start bombing you with more messages.
- If checking an e-mail message on your cell phone or PDA, and it requires a just a quick response, consider calling the person with your answer rather than typing it. (Typing into cell phones and PDAs is usually VERY slow!) And of course, the best time to call is when they are away from their desk – you want to catch that voice mail!
- Finally, if you are an Outlook user, did you know that you can drag an e-mail from your inbox and drop it on your task, calendar, or contacts icon to create a new task, appointment, or contact? This saves a TON of time keystroking – “dragging and dropping” e-mails into these functions will allow you to much more quickly administer those “three minute or less” e-mails, thus allowing you to keep that inbox cleaner and more efficient!
Even though this is a lot of information, there is still much more in my book.