It's time to work, and you fire up your email with a sense of foreboding. If you're like any of my executive coaching clients, you've received between 200 and 2,000 new emails ... since the previous day. Arggh!
As if managing an overcrowded Emergency Room, you triage the new messages as quickly as you can: this one's dying in the waiting room (handle immediately), that one has a bruise (ignore for now, and probably forever), etc. Meanwhile, you worry that your rapid scanning will make you miss something urgent.
What else can you do?
Here's how I help my clients change email behavior -- starting with their own habits, and help others to do the same. If some or all of these are done consistently, you can change the game in your organization.
1. Stop spreading your cc: virus, and help others do the same. We cc: and bcc: people mostly to be polite, inclusive and/or because they may be interested. Doing this replicates email like a virus. MUST you copy that person? (Helpful hint: "maybe" = no.) Reply to emails on which you were unnecessarily cc:ed with a very brief note asking that the sender removes you from cc:'s on emails like this in the future.
2. Stop "FYI" emailing people. Keeping others in the loop "For Your Information" (FYI)? Don't. If they don't need it, consider not sending your FYI to them. If you receive email like this, reply with feedback to the sender, as in, "Thanks. Since email traffic remains high, I'll need you to eliminate me from "FYI" messages like this one."
3. Make your SUBJECT LINE sing and dance. A subject line is a headline--and as they say in the news business, "Don't bury the lead." Make it concisely say why recipient should care about your message the first time they see it, and what / when follow up is needed. Example: "Re: Need YOU to revise and email me the ABC project briefing before 2/15/13 at 5pm EST. Template attached."
4. Apply the less-is-more-content rule and encourage others to do the same. Since everyone's swamped, the body of an email is no place for clever repartee, exposition or explanation. Limit yourself to a two-short-paragraph-or-less rule. If it's longer, you should probably have a conversation. Make sure the first line or two is the main headline and explains the need for the communication. Reply to lengthy emails with feedback to shorten them up. Then, to repeat-offender-senders, reply that from now on you'll file them away, and read them "at some point in the future, as time may permit."
5. Create less email - use it less than you do. Send less, reply less, and use voice to voice or IM more often. Pick up the phone, find someone in the hall. Coach or provide feedback to people who are large generators of email, asking them to reduce everyone's load, and to remove you from email unless highly relevant or important. Welcome them to contact you by other means, if needed.
6. Use your tools shrewdly and clean your In-Box regularly. If you aren't that facile with your email management app(s), it's time to become an expert. This is a mainstay of your work, and isn't going away. RTFM! Ask others. Most programs allow you to flag, prioritize, organize in various folders, and search through large sets of email. And set aside a time each day or week for "email clean up," and get your In-box to below 50 messages / zero unread.
7. Don't be complacent about spam. Rather than just delete that annoying spam email "in the interest of time," use the unsubscribe and/or "add to junk filter" buttons. Research (learn about) the tools you already have on your device / computer, and on any other great spam reduction tools. If you have IT support, or a web host / web provider, ask for their help. We're all in this together.
8. An email chain is annoying and isn't a conversation, it's a set of monologues. If there's more than one reply in an email chain, a conversation is missing, and needs to be had. Be the one to instigate a true conversation and eliminate the chain. The outcome will be more effective, and less time-consuming for all involved.