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How to Stop Spinning Your Wheels-and Start Managing Your e-Mail

Has e-mail got you spinning like a hamster on a wheel?

Join the crowd. E-mail overload is epidemic in the U.S. workplace.

Employees now spend over 40% of their workday on e-mail—and they consider more than a third of that time a waste, according to a new survey on e-mail issues and trends from Cohesive Knowledge Solutions (CKS). What’s more, companies are bleeding big bucks—some $300 billion a year—in lost productivity and profits.

The good news? You’re neither hopeless—nor helpless. You can escape from the relentless e-mail hamster wheel.

Four simple strategies
There’s a lot you can do to deal with e-mail overload. But first, you’ve got to stop spinning your wheels—and start managing your e-mail. We recommend four low-tech, high-impact strategies:
  • Get fewer e-mails
    The best way to get less is to send less. How? Cut the number of recipients per e-mail by ceasing to use—and abuse—the “Reply to All” and “cc” features, as well as group distribution lists.
  • Write better messages
    Weak subject lines and “wall of words” messages don’t work since people don’t read e-mails—they scan them. Start every message with a specific subject line and a brief greeting, then use the “ABC” method to split the body of the e-mail into three sections—“Action” (summarizing your purpose), “Background” (presenting your key points), and “Close” (clarifying the next steps).
  • Coach frequent senders
    People won’t miraculously send you better e-mails. So the choice is simple: Offer your frequent senders a few really good tips—or suffer through their really bad e-mails.
  • File and find information faster
    Most people have a large number of overlapping e-mail folders. That means “Stuff from the Boss” could hold anything from a performance review to a movie review. File smart: Create a limited number of mutually exclusive folders that are based on content—not sender, software, or some other criteria.

Start with yourself
If you’re like most people, you think everyone else has bad e-mail habits and behaviors—not you. One example: More than 75% of professionals surveyed by CKS say their colleagues overuse the “Reply to All” feature, while not even 15% confess to such use and abuse themselves.

The truth is, we’re all to blame for today’s e-mail woes. So to create change in your workplace, start with yourself. Here are seven tried-and-true tips:

  1. Quit boomeranging.  Send five e-mails, and you get three replies—even if most of those replies aren't necessary. Put a lid on this “boomerang effect”—and instantly shrink your volume 10% or more—by eliminating just one out of five outgoing e-mails.
  2. Stop—then send.  Who doesn’t want information that helps him do his job better? So before sending every e-mail, stop and ask yourself if it really is helpful—timely, topical, and targeted—or if you’re just pushing out lots of your own “me-mail” junk.
  3. Be polite—with conditions.  We all want to be polite. Still, not every e-mail requires a reply—especially a trivial “Thanks!” Make an agreement with your key contacts to reserve thank-you e-mails for extraordinary efforts. You can even adopt a shorthand for your subject lines—acronyms such as NRN (“No Reply Needed”) or NTN (“No Thanks Needed”)—to nip unnecessary e-mails in the bud.
  4. Schedule live conversations.  Just because e-mail is the easiest channel doesn’t mean it’s the best channel. Before sending a message that invites a long back-and-forth discussion, consider scheduling a short-and-sweet live conversation instead.
  5. Advance your image.  E-mail can help—or hinder—your professional image. Place a high priority on spelling and grammar—a no-brainer thanks to today’s e-mail programs—and go easy on things such as all caps, abbreviations, acronyms, exclamation points, and emoticons.
  6. Follow the 24-hour rule.  Most everyone has sent an angry e-mail in the heat of the moment—only to regret it later. Prevent “sender’s remorse” by following the 24-hour rule: Write the e-mail, but wait a day to send it—giving yourself time to cool down and create a new, no-regrets message.
  7. Mind your time.  It’s easy to get caught up in the cycle of reading and responding to
    e-mails right as they come in. Put a stop to these endless interruptions that keep you from doing your “real job.” Try setting aside short blocks of time each day to check your e-mail. In addition, disconnect your “ding”—the sound or symbol that alerts you to new messages—and program your e-mail to synchronize every half hour instead of every few minutes.

Succeeding in the new workplace requires smart solutions to managing information—starting with e-mail. Set a proper example for your colleagues and offer your frequent senders a few really good tips. You’ll find a little coaching can go a long way to helping everyone win.

Self-Assessment: How’s your e-mail efficiency and etiquette?
If you check three or more of the following statements, you probably need help—now.

__ I frequently use the “Reply to All” feature.

___ I like to “cc” people just to keep them in the loop.

___ Most days I have a couple hundred e-mails in my inbox.

___ I usually respond to e-mails right as they come in.

___ I send e-mails in the heat of the moment—and regret it later.

___ It seems like I spend more time on e-mail than my “real job.”

___ I check e-mail most nights and weekends.

___ I send partial e-mails just to get back to people quickly.

___ My e-mails turn into a chain of back-and-forth discussions.

___ I rarely pay attention to subject lines—mine or others’.

___ I don’t organize the body of my e-mails in any particular way.

___ A lot of my e-mails have multiple attachments.

___ I wouldn’t think of coaching others on e-mail.

___ My e-mail filing system includes a number of overlapping folders.

___ I don’t associate e-mail with my professional image.

From The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your E-mail Before It Manages You (Berrett-Koehler, 2007).