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Taming the email beast once and for all

By Aaron Rothert

Let’s face it: We need email. But we also need a way to control the beast that email can become.

It is estimated that almost 30 percent of our workday is consumed by dealing with email.

How do we tame this beast so that it doesn’t take over our day?

The 80/20 rule

The Pareto Principle applies to email, as it does to so many areas of our lives. Probably only about 20 percent of the emails you receive require a response from you. That means as much of 80 percent of your emails do not need a response. In fact, a large portion of that 80 percent may not even need to be read by you!

Begin to tame the email beast by eliminating the useless and unnecessary messages cluttering your inbox.

Our frustration with email often results from how we approach email. All too often we view email as a big box of emergencies requiring our immediate attention.

Here are a few tips to begin improving your approach to email.

Apply rules

Apply rules so that unnecessary emails are directed to folders rather than your inbox. Listservs and e-newsletters are prime candidates for this approach.

Even necessary emails can be processed more effectively through the use of rules. For example, you might consider creating client folders and directing emails pertaining to certain clients to those folders.

Stop using your inbox as a to-do list

If you’re not already doing so, adopt the daily routine of developing your own daily to-do list by blocking out planning time at the beginning or end of your day to set your own priorities.

With priorities in place, you are much less likely to react to fake “email emergencies” and much more likely to proactively focus on your own very real priorities for the day.

Your inbox doesn’t determine your daily priorities; you do.

Turn off email notifications

We have become conditioned to react immediately to the tone or pop-up box indicating that we have a new email.

Just like Pavlov’s dog, we see or hear that stimulus, automatically stop what we are doing, and provide the conditioned response of reading and reacting to that new email. Every time we react this way, we waste time, disrupt our schedule, and forget our priorities.

To break this cycle, turn off your notifications and block time during the day to process your email. By turning off the notifications, you eliminate the stimulus for immediate reaction that interrupts your daily schedule.

When you block time to check email, you are grouping like tasks together, which means you’re getting more done in less time. You’re determining when you check email, not the tone or the pop-up.

Don’t just read email, process it

Once you’ve blocked time for addressing email, make improvements to the way you approach it. Rather than just reading email, process it.

I recommend the Four D approach. Each time you open an email, make a decision about that email. Will you: “Do it,” “Delay it,” “Delegate it” or “Delete it”?

Here’s how it works:

Do it. Some email can be handled right then. Any email that can be handled without changing screens and within two minutes meets the “do it” standard.

Delay it. Any email that requires your attention but does not meet the “do it” standard falls into this category. Move these emails to an appropriate folder or prioritize them on your to-do list to address at the appropriate time.

Delegate it. Some email does not require your attention but does require some action. Identify and delegate this type of message to the proper person.

Delete it. For email that does not meet the three categories above, delete it. Don’t let it clutter your inbox. Don’t spend time moving it to a folder. Just get rid of it.

bbbA few additional tips

Provide the email address for a key contact in your firm. This person can then triage the email and direct it to the appropriate parties.

Utilize subject lines like text messages. This is especially helpful when communicating with others in the office. If a complete, simple message can be conveyed in the subject line, eliminate the need to compose or open the email all together.

Reduce inter-office emails by eliminating “thank you” emails and reducing “cc” lists, which get excessive. Eliminate them to reduce clutter.

Ensure your message is received by highlighting action items. Do this to reduce the need for clarification emails.

Limit your emails to 50 words or less. If it can’t be addressed in 50 words, consider picking up the phone.

Stop reacting to email and start proactively planning how to deal with it. Set boundaries by turning off notifications and scheduling blocks of time to address email.

Don’t just read emails; process them by using the Four D approach. Use the practical tips discussed above to reduce the volume, process the flow more efficiently, and reduce the unnecessary clutter of your email inbox.

By planning ahead and working smarter, rather than harder or longer, you can tame the email beast once and for all.

Aaron Rothert is a certified practice advisor at Atticus, focusing on marketing and time management for attorneys.

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