Leadership and Managing Your Email Inbox
Email. One might argue that it is the gift and curse of modern-day communication.
Particularly since the advent of smartphones and tablets, emails have made all of us available 24/7, at least theoretically. Heck, let’s be honest; there is an expectation that is held by many, that we will actually be available 24/7 in practical terms. Talk about a recipe for overwhelm – and inevitable failure when it comes to relationships. Because the truth is, you can’t be available 24/7 – or if you are, you are paying a heavy price.
The question that arises, then, is this: how do we navigate email, professionally, courteously, and with boundaries?
The answer lies in understanding the purpose of communication in general. Often, we think of communication as a means to disseminate information, to share our thoughts and ideas, right?
Well, I say “yes” … and “no”.
Information sharing is only the surface-purpose. The deeper purpose of communication is connection and community.
When we share information of any sort – research facts, policies, answers to questions about ourselves or others – what we are doing, always, is working towards establishing connections.
The challenge when it comes to email or other electronic communication is that it can feel so darn overwhelming. There are times when our inboxes are filled with 100’s of messages. How on earth do we respond to all of those?
The two strategies that are often used – and I’ve sometimes used them myself – include:
“I’ll get to it later – once I’ve dealt with other things – and there are always other things.”
“I’ll answer every email as I’m notified – stay on top of it – at the expense of all my other work.”
The truth, of course, is that neither of these approaches is very effective. In the case of the former, emails are often put off for days on end, leaving the sender wondering whether the message was lost in cyberspace. Or they feel dismissed by the recipient, a pawn in a rather passive-aggressive game of “I’m far too important to answer THAT message.”
With the second approach – the pavlovian approach, as I call it (since you’re basically responding to every bell, whistle or vibration of your phone or computer – overwhelm is inevitable.
So, what are your options? Here are a few to consider. These can be used individually or in combination.
1. Designate a time to address email. Two, hour-long blocks a day is often enough. Use discipline to only respond to messages during these blocks. This frees up your time outside of these blocks to work on the rest of your priorities. If using this strategy, you’ll want to set up an auto-responder to let folks know when they can expect to hear from you. This acknowledges that the email has landed, and that you’ll answer later.
Example (this is actually my personal approach):
Thank you for your email!
Please note that I generally review and respond to email messages within 24 hours during the regular work week (Monday to Friday), and typically between the hours of 8 am and 9 am, and again between 3 pm and 4 pm.
Thank you and have a great day!!
2. Given that email is about building connection, don’t leave your senders hanging. Even if you know that you’ll respond later, they don’t. So, do one of two things: either, have an autoresponder set to indicate when you typically respond to messages (see strategy #1), OR let them know on an individual basis that you will respond later. This is especially effective when you have research to do in order to answer their query – or when you need time for whatever reason.
Thanks for your message. Just letting you know that I did receive it, and I need a bit of time to (fill in the blank with your reason). I will get back to you by (indicate a time frame that works).
3. Cut yourself some slack. If you receive an email from someone you don’t know – who you’ve never met, who is reaching out without any sort of mutual acquaintance or request that aligns with who you are and what you offer – resist the temptation to jump through hoops. If it’s a professional inquiry, use one of the above strategies. If it’s the equivalent of a cold call, do the email equivalent of screening a phone call – ignore it.
4. Minimize the number of lists you’re on. While individuals like myself love to have folks on their distribution list, trust me when I say, if the content isn’t serving you, it doesn’t actually serve either of us. So, unsubscribe from lists that you are regularly sending to your trash. This alone will reduce your email clutter significantly.
As a general rule of thumb, when it comes to email it is professional, fair and courteous to set a goal of responding personally to messages within 24 hours – unless it falls in the spam category. Even if the initial response is some version of “got it – I’ll get back to you”, the act of responding helps to build and maintain connection.
Stop telling yourself you’re too busy to respond. The truth is, every single person is busy in one way or another. When you don’t respond, the message you’re actually sending is that the message isn’t a priority for you – and by extension, neither is the relationship. Which may, in fact be true. If so, fine – ignore the message. And if it’s not true – if the relationship is important in any way then honour the sender by responding.
Bottom-line: communication is about building connection. While email correspondence can be overwhelming, it merits the same courtesy and consideration as in-person communication, all in service of building connection. Find a strategy that will support you in building great connections – any of the four listed above is a great start. And reap the benefits of being part of a connected community.