Overcome EMail Overload

May 11, 2012 No Comments by

Change Agent Tip #31

In my last article, I described methods for Change Agents to reclaim control of their overflowing inboxes by, among other things, setting aside dedicated slices of time each day to focus on handling email and using a 2-minute rule to knock out emails that are easy to answer. Click here to check out that article.

The second critical step in turning the tide of email overload is to take action by ruthlessly prioritizing which emails will get your attention.

For this challenge, I lean on a tried and true model based upon Stephan Covey’s “7 Habits“. If you haven’t read this classic, you should. I could not recommend it more strongly.

Go get it at Amazon.com or visit any bookstore to pick it up.

To the millions who read Covey’s masterpiece, the graph below should look familiar.  To those who haven’t been exposed to his approach, I will summarize one key element of it by saying that each of us can consciously prioritize what we spend our time doing.

Before deciding whether to invest our precious time in a given activity, we should consider how important that activity is and how urgent it appears. Covey suggests that each of these factors can be represented as a continuum from low to high. When we place those two scales into a grid like the one below, it gives us four ‘quadrants” – into which we can place most activities. (…see examples within each quadrant.)

The Merrill-Covey Matrix is provided courtesy of the Wikipedia Commons

  1. Important + Urgent = Must be done right away.
  2. Important + Non-Urgent = Things we really need to do, but we must choose to prioritize them or they tend to get pushed off.
  3. Not Important + Urgent = Can be put off even if they appear time-sensitive.
  4. Not Important + Non-Urgent = Total time-wasters. (Be honest about these!)

I’ve created a similar prioritization principle which can be applied to the barrage of emails that hit my inbox.

Here it is and how I use it:

The first time I look at an email, I decide where it fits into my email priorities:

Based on that judgement, I decide what to do with it as described below:

1. Critical – An email that is both urgent and important clearly must be answered immediately – even if it makes me late for my next meeting or causes me to miss lunch. Example: The server is down and the team needs me to contact a field representative to resolve this critical customer support issue. Or my client is giving a presentation in 15 minutes and they need a critical bit of data to update their slides. I typically answer a critical email right away – directly from whatever device I’m using to read it.

OBTW: I’ve written several articles on team ground rules. This is an example of a situation where effective teams should allow their members to actually use their email or smartphone during a meeting. (read “Team Ground Rules” and “Making Ground Rules Stick”.)

2. Important, but Not Urgent – You’ll recognize this category by three characteristics:

  •  it clearly applies to your real-life/work priorities,
  •  it requires action on your part,
  •  and the time expectation for your reply is not immediate.

These messages take up most of the time I devote to email.  In order to handle them appropriately, they need to be given the proper level of attention. Examples might include emails that ask for my:

  •  …formal approval of a complex decision the team is making,
  •  …review of a 200-page attachment before it goes out the door,
  •  …input on a process flow document that will be used to streamline something that’s done in my part of the business,
  • …or a host of other activities that will probably take more than a few minutes to do.

I usually flag these emails and leave them in my inbox, or drop them into my Action Item folder. I also jot the activity on my daily to do list so I can work on it when I have time to concentrate. It’s also a good practice to assign a deadline for this work, even if the email didn’t specify one.

3. FYI (For Your Information): These emails are useful in that they contain important information that I may need to reference later, but there’s no specific action required on my part – at least not right now.

Examples: The email might contain a threaded conversation between other people who included me as a “CC:” participant so I’d be “in the loop”. It may be a record of some meeting or background on a topic that could be important down the road.

The key characteristic here is that it is truly useful information and there is truly no action required. If my software allows for folders, I drop the email into the appropriate bucket. If I’m using GMail – where folders are not used – I simply close the email to save it in my inbox.

4. Junk – I call emails that are not about important matters (whether they look “urgent” or not) what they really are: junk mail.  They are an electronic version of the stuff that fills my paper recycling bin each Tuesday morning.

The trick to ditching this garbage is to be brutally honest about what constitutes junk mail for you. You’ll have to decide the criteria, but once you do – and take appropriate action – you’ll notice the time you spend dealing with email will be sharply reduced.

Examples: A forwarded joke, an advertising pitch or any other spam-loaded cry for attention that does not require my action and does not fit into my real life priorities shouldn’t be allowed to wiggle its way into my email priorities.

I delete these immediately without opening them or saving them.

Let’s Get Busy! Change Agents communicate using email all the time. Speeding up the process of handling email can make you more effective as a communicator and free up time to do other parts of your role. In my next article, I’ll share some tips that your team can use to help improve the overall email efficiency of a larger group of people.


Questions for Chatter:

  • Sometimes I’ve found it helps to “unsubscribe” from junk mail – other times, I swear that feature just adds me to other junk mail lists… What has been your experience?
  • Is evaluating the urgency and importance of each email really necessary, or is it overkill? What can possibly go wrong if I chill out and read a few harmless jokes that have been forwarded by my friends?

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Team Dynamics, Uncategorized & Other Fun Stuff

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I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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