Whether you use email in your work or solely for your personal desire to communicate with family and friends or, which is more likely, a mix of business and personal, you need an email policy that helps you achieve what you want. It doesn't have to be a written plan; it doesn't have to be long. But if you don't clarify what you want to accomplish, the email monster will consume you and your time. What's your time worth? Is it worth your time?
A word of warning or comfort -- I am also on this path of establishing email habits and strategies. It is an ongoing effort, and I have to remind myself every so often to follow my own advice.
To keep your email from overwhelming you:
Determine what you want to accomplish with your email. Why do you use email? Are you staying in touch with friends and family? Are you reading or sharing the latest laughs? Do you want to build your business through email? Connecting with your clients? Do you want to read about topics that interest you? Do you feel a need to know what's going on? Do you use it as a break from what you really should be doing? What do you get out of reading your email?
Decide who's in charge. Do you want to take on projects and tasks assigned to you because someone sent it to you? Decide whether you want to be in charge of your email or whether you'd rather your email (and the senders) be in charge of you and what you do with your time. Seriously, which do you want? Then base your actions on that decision.
Limit when and how often you check your email. We are hardwired to gather information, so it's easy for us to check email constantly throughout the day. But limit checking your email so that you can focus on the things you need to do. How often you check will depend on you and your needs. Focus on "less" often.
Turn off email notification on your phone, your computer or whatever technology you're using. If you've established when in your day you'll check emails, then you don't need to know about every stray email coming in.
Establish common subject flags to indicate importance. Some people use the word URGENT, some use 9999 or 1111. I asked one co-worker to put "HEY YOU" at the beginning of the subject line so that I knew it was more than just an FYI and that she needed me to respond.
Use filters and rules to move certain emails automatically out of your inbox into other folders that you check at different times. This allows you to keep the information coming in without overloading your inbox. If you haven't checked the information for a couple of months, then consider unsubscribing.
Let others know that you've established new guidelines for your emails. If they are accustomed to your immediate response, then let them know either verbally or in an automated response email that you will be checking your email only at certain times, so that if they need your immediate attention, they will need to call.
To make your email more effective:
Put your request for action in the first sentence. The must-have information (such as meeting date, time and location) should always be in the first paragraph in case they stop reading there. Keep the paragraph short.
Keep your email short. One study found that an email that is two sentences or less has the highest response rate. The longer the email the less information they'll take in, and they might skip it all together.
Don't assume action will be taken unless you specifically request it. Ask or tell them directly what you want them to do or what you need from them.
Use subject lines. Help your reader understand what you're writing. Make it interesting.
Make your subject line short, to the point and useful. The best subject lines are 40-50 characters long. You can include dates and time for response requests or meetings.
Limit your email to one subject, two at the most. Any more than that, then send another email.
If you are asking questions, set them apart from the body of the email. If you have more than two questions for the reader, number them so that the reader can refer to them as necessary. This helps keep the reader focused and you'll know which answer refers to which question.
Read your email for grammar and spelling and content BEFORE you hit send. Especially if you're using the iPhone. It can be amusing, but it might not be professional.
DON'T hit "reply all" and send your response to everyone on the email distribution list unless every single person needs to see it. Send it only to the one or two who need to know.
Use BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) when distributing an email to a group, unless it's absolutely necessary to have everyone see the distribution list. BCC protects the privacy of the recipients, limits spamming, and also helps prevent the "reply all" response.
Call instead. It might take less time to just phone and explain. If the tone of the emails or emotions begin to intensify, take it offline and talk about it.
Changing your email habits, strategies and guidelines doesn't happen overnight (at least not for most people). So plan to improve rather than perfect.
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